Album Review: Damon Albarn - 'The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows'
Damon Albarn’s new solo release, “The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows,” does not sound like the traditional Damon Albarn sound, a statement which is applicable no matter how one regards “the traditional Damon Albarn sound.”
As the frontman of Blur, Albarn scored major hits with Madchester dance music (“There’s No Other Way”), disco-punk (“Girls & Boys”), Kinks-esque hyper-British social commentary (“Country House”), and overdriven hard rock (“Song 2”), and that was all before things really got esoteric with the virtual trip-hop collective Gorillaz.
At 53, it would be well within the rights of even Albarn’s ardent fans to expect, particularly with a title like “The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows,” for the musical chameleon to indulge a soft rock sensibility that is one of the few rivers of popular music in which he has not dipped his toes.
If nothing else can be said about Albarn’s second studio album, it must be said that it is not an album coming from a man content to rest on his considerable laurels. It falls closer to Blur than Gorillaz on the musicality spectrum almost by necessity, a belief that can be secured 20 seconds into the album’s title, leadoff track, barring any unexpected Del the Funky Homosapien cameos.
Albarn’s vocals, always competent but rarely lauded as anything beyond workmanlike throughout his career, are even more in the background on “The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows” than they have been throughout most of his discography. This speaks to Albarn’s ethos, something akin to a latter-day David Bowie, somebody who began his musical life as a singer but found his true form as a musical tinkerer.
That the album opens with its title track and closes with “Particles,” a song which recalls the lyrics of the title track, suggests that Albarn views this as a comprehensive work, and as much as his musical career has been built around pseudo-conceptual albums, this makes perfect sense. But while the celebratory Britishness of Blur’s “Parklife” or the American alternative elements of their self-titled album still opened the door for somewhat self-evident stand-alone singles, it would be astonishing if any song off this album became even as big of a pop hit as “Heavy Seas of Love,” his 2014 single with Brian Eno, which peaked at number 70 in Albarn’s native United Kingdom.
It would be insincere to claim that he is above commercial ambition in the broader sense – this is a man, after all, who readily reunited Blur following a decade spent churning out contemporary pop music with Gorillaz. But he does seem to care less – this is a man who was formerly rather surly when asked about the transparent advertising campaign that was the Blur vs. Oasis chart rivalry, but who now seems content to leave the professional wrestling-like gimmickry of his 20s behind (and even content to team up with Oasis’s Noel Gallagher onstage, scoring a bit of a consolation prize when Noel performed two of his songs, Blur’s “Tender” and Gorillaz’s “Dare”).
This album sounds more interesting than anything else, full of electronic fills and drum breaks, but it’s largely devoid of anything resembling a warm pop hook. Post-prime Pink Floyd’s atmospherics are a bit of a template, and when something slightly upbeat emerges from the relatively dirgy nature of most of the album is where “The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows” reaches its peaks. While a track titled “The Tower Of Montevideo” may not inspire too much confidence of pop ambition, its off-kilter percussion and smooth saxophone lines juxtaposed with Albarn’s casual vocals create a dissonance that certainly will not top any charts, but which makes for an interesting listen at the very least.
There are a few other cuts that emerge beyond the general serenity which defines the album. “Royal Morning Blue” ventures into a sort of mid-tempo dance track, though on this particular song, Albarn’s voice carries along with a Lou Reed-esque sense of boredom (which could be viewed as an asset or a liability, depending on how you feel about Albarn’s sense of detached irony).
That this album includes an instrumental, “Combustion,” speaks to a lack of true ego from a solo artist (though it may not be a bad idea to revisit the term “tinkerer” as opposed to “singer”), is an interesting choice, and the “Crocodile Rock”-esque keyboards give it a bit of a haunted house feel, though the track isn’t quite listenable for any prolonged period of time.
For those who have nothing but respect for Albarn’s varied career, “The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows” marks an interesting chapter in it. It is probably for the best that rather than trying to bust out another “Beetlebum” or “Feel Good Inc.,” Albarn has seemingly resigned himself to being a pop music afterthought. In the ‘90s or ‘00s, this is the sort of thing that Albarn would claim – that he was above the charts – and it would come across as insincere, but he seems comfortable in his skin as an emeritus figure in British popular music, who is completely liberated to make music on his own terms for as long as he would like.