Stunningly somber, undeniably beautiful
When one thinks of Damon Albarn, former frontman of Blur and intermittently the man behind Gorillaz, where he works under the pseudonym 2-D, people tend to think of bombastic, boisterous performances or strangely off-kilter vocal theatrics. But it’s not often that he tilts toward a near ambient space on his records. Sure, there have been melancholic moments on Gorillaz and Blur records in the past, but they were the exception rather than the rule as most of the music was either hard-rocking or infectiously joyous. But on The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, people get a glimpse of Albarn at his most introspective and dour, and it’s a shockingly compelling mode for the beloved artist.
The album opens up with “The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows” and immediately grabs people’s attention as a consequence. Its airy, spaced-out production teeters on the brink of ambient music but is kept afloat by Albarn’s soft, slightly-shaky croon, which grounds the song to the Earth and makes its impeccable lyrics all the more powerful. And speaking of lyrics, this features some of the most impressive that Albarn has ever penned. In particular, the following passage, “To think of life, that did laugh on your face/ In the beautiful past left so desolate now/ When you’ve seemed immortal/ So sweet it did we/ Heaven’s halo around you” is one of the most touching passages in any album this year.
While this album is on the whole more somber than many of Albarn’s other projects, it mostly contains its sadness to the opening portions of the record. In particular, “The Cormorant” and “Daft Wader” are read as tender ballads of lost love. But the later parts of the album, as well as intermittent early record cuts, paint a more joyous picture that better lines up with what people have come to expect from Albarn. Of particular note is “Royal Morning Blue,” which is nearly as bouncy as the most electric tracks from the heyday of The Gorillaz. It possesses an undeniable groove that virtually pulls one to their feet or at least makes people bob along in their office chair for a few brief minutes.
Creating something sadder than his previous work was certainly a risk for Albarn, but his ability to intermix the sadness with tracks like “The Tower of Montevideo” shows that he’s not interested in beating his audience over the head with melancholy, at least for a whole album. But more importantly, it shows him to be a restless creative spirit who is always interested in jamming the most he can into an album. And if the mix of danceable sadness isn’t enough to convince people, the childlike jazz outbursts of “Combustion” and “Giraffe Trumpet Sea” certainly prove his ambition.
Albarn’s career will always be defined by his work with two iconic bands of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. At this point, nothing in his solo career is likely to change his image in either direction. But it’s good to know that his stellar success in previous years hasn’t dulled his desire to build amazing tracks and cohesive albums. With The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, Albarn shows that he has plenty left in the tank and that we’re just lucky to be around for the ride.