Damon Albarn was never one to follow the rules. The mastermind behind the most diverse projects, from Britpop icons Blur to the animated pop-art legends Gorillaz, passing through collaborations, musicals and operas in Cantonese or influenced by Sun Ra, Funkadelic or Fela Kuti, it seems he is rarely short of inspiration. Or of surprises – few would know Mr. Albarn is also an Icelandic citizen, and even fewer that part of Blur’s iconic 1997 self-titled album was partly recorded in the country, away from the Britpop scene.
His latest solo work, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, is his homage to the vast majestic and pristine landscapes of Iceland – and Albarn, now in his fifties and increasingly worried about global warming and the climate crisis, sure has a thing or two to say about the topic. It is a love letter of sorts to the beauty he wants to preserve, as well as a reflection of what is lost with the passage of time. There is no denial that The Nearer the Fountain is an emotionally heavy album – no doubt influenced by the last 2 years of the global pandemic or by the death of his long time collaborator Tony Allen in 2020, it is a much gloomier and melancholic album when compared to his debut solo work, 2014’s Everyday Robots. In other words, for those expecting a “pop-y” bone or two in the likes of Gorillaz’s DARE or Blur’s Song 2, there isn’t much here of those sorts – here, more than ever, Albarn is doing exactly what he wants, how he wants it.
It is a hauntingly beautiful album, and one that is diametrically opposed to his latest Gorillaz album, Song Machine, packed with back to back collaborations, from Robert Smith or Beck to Elton John and St. Vincent. The Nearer the Fountain takes us through a personal journey, the likes of which you can’t really find in any other work apart from his solo efforts. Take The Cormorant, for example, where he reminisces about the beaches where his daughter grew up – “I now drift, daydreaming, to when we were happy here on this beach,” he sings, “We played with our children and they were happy, too”. It is a mysterious and enigmatic track, one that leads Albarn “into the abyss”. Royal Morning Blue follows, and changes the scenery once again, with a graceful nod to Gorillaz fans. It is a deceptively light song, this one – mind you, he is effectively singing about the “end of the world”, and how the weather can transform an entire landscape.
The mixture of musical genres and styles, from the pop-soul of Darkness to Light to the more sombre of Daft Wader, should come as no surprise to those who have followed Albarn’s eclectic and vast musical journey for the past 30 years [Author’s note: and nearly 30 records]. What stands out is how all these songs are interlinked and flow into one another, from jazz pianos and experimental synths, to tranquil and reflective sounds as well as to more sombre and passive chords. In a nutshell, a weirdly zen balance between a cacophony of sounds and instruments. Even the “pure” instrumental tracks, such as Combustion or Ejsa, have been cleverly slotted in the record to allow the listener to catch a breath before resuming the emotional roller coaster that are the spoken tracks. As Radiohead would put it, “everything in its right place”.
Despite being heavily influenced by Iceland and its grand sceneries, The Nearer the Fountain is a musical journey that also takes us to Iran or Montenegro, or through Uruguayan architecture via The Tower of Montevideo, which perfectly captures the bleak tone of the overall record with Albarn’s trademark crooning and melancholic voice, all while serving as a living journal of memories rather than a photograph [Author’s note: in addition to being a personal favourite of the album]. Polaris is another definite standout of the record, coming of the back of the instrumental Giraffe Trumpet Sea and dwelling into the North Star, a navigational reference for all those who have been “blown off course”. It is also one of the few uplifting songs of The Nearer the Fountain, a sort of collective belief in humanity as a whole.
With 3 decades of commercial successes under his belt, Albarn has rightfully achieved a status where he no longer bothers about selling records or getting hits on the radio. On The Nearer the Fountain, he continues his musical evolution, confirming his creative restlessness and exploratory appetite. Hell, if his phenomenal Glastonbury May 2021 stream proved anything is precisely this – given the “best of” setlist of Coldplay’s performance immediately before, one would be forgiven to expect Blur and Gorillaz’s leader to put out a “best of” compilation of his own. But no, he took the opportunity and the stage to present his latest and unknown project [Author’s note: rocking a kick-ass mullet, I might add].
Right from the album’s opener, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, we are launched into the atmosphere that Mr. Albarn defined for the record, with the song’s melody accompanying us several times throughout the album, a reflection of its cohesiveness and overall musical concept. For all its worth, and I know I am biased [Author’s note: very, very biased], The Nearer the Fountain is one of Albarn’s masterpieces, and definitely one of the top albums of 2021.