Damon Albarn is nothing if not an ambitious musician. With commercial success well and truly captured ages ago, the English songwriter writer sets his sights on further shaping his own myth to his liking on the most recent solo release The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, a bittersweet, slow-paced ode to his adopted country of Iceland.
In the good old days of Britpop, when bands like Blur were exporting albums by the millions to all corners of the world, there was no group harder to ignore than the Essex quartet. Their Britishness was ceremonious and loud with the chords of Boys and girls or Charmless man piercing the ear canals of radio listeners and mall shoppers everywhere. This was a band that wanted hits.
Somewhere around the late 1990s, Damon Albarn discovered that his appetite for additional recognition would need to involve embracing subtlety, sophistication, even self-irony. Blur embraced American indie-rock a la Pavement, before Albarn’s music-meets-cartoons project, Gorillaz took on every shade of pop music making an impression on the world.
With his latest solo album, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, Albarn further distances himself from the rambunctiousness of his Parklife era. He’s still concerned with how the world sees him. Only now, the first things that they should notice involve the creation of worldwide pop hits, concept records about Dr. Dee, or moody soundscapes dedicated to Iceland. This is Damon Albarn’s second solo album, but one of the numerous releases with which he’s been involved within recent years.
Northern Europe, and Iceland particularly, have always had a habit of bringing out musicians’ interest in sonic texture creation. The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows cuts the difference between Sigur Ros and a pure pop record. The lure of pop music and ambient sounds is strong in Britpop icons. Just see Noel Gallagher.
The title track, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows shimmers like a day out on a cold Icelandic beach. The track plays out like a somber folk song, an embrace of colder winters and acceptance of the summers that have passed. It’s a melancholy-soaked direction that the songwriter previously showcased on songs like Photographs (You are not taking now).
The Cormorant plays over an almost Middle Eastern drum pattern with Alborn’s emotional vocals almost cracking as he recites his lyrics of loss and longing. Royal Morning Blue takes on electro-pop beat, yet retreats into similar wistful territory.
Tracks like Combustion and Esja thought might best define the album. Here Damon Albarn, and collaborator Simon Tong, a one-time former member of Verve, create expanded, dramatic soundscapes meant to echo Iceland’s beautiful, wintry scenery. There are drumless tracks here, and songs where the drum machine patterns are fiercely rigid. The human element is provided by Damon Albarn’s passionate, low-key vocals. It’s a trick that many musicians making their work in Iceland seem to prefer.
The Tower of Montevideo and Particles‘ are a mix of carefully layered drum machine sounds, samples, and poetry recitation. Damon Albarn treats this almost as an album of jazz standards in which the musicians have been replaced by numerous, smart samples, and the words are his own thoughts on life. It will be interesting to see how Albarn brings the album to a live setting when he tours Britain this winter.
Damon Albarn has run far enough away from the pack that he is free to set his own pace. The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows is not intended either as a political statement or as an attempt at pop-rock chart-topping. It’s a diary entry of one of modern music’s most restless artists finally finding some peace.