The Blur frontman and key piece of Gorillaz ensemble is not here to feel good. Latest album The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is a slow and deep dive into personable and emotive languishing. Damon Albarn does it well. He has experienced the dark side and reflects on that in his latest solo album. As despondent as his artistry is, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows is a flat yet reflective piece. It is the odd balance of maturity reflecting on the past that clashes so poorly with placated piano and string accompaniments. This is an album as dependent on the lyrical stylings of the artist as the artist is on the know-how of putting together an emotive piece.
Albarn has not performed that in decades. His work on Gorillaz never quite allows for many emotive qualities. Up on Melancholy Hill may have produced that variation, but it was never going to get deeper than that. His retreat into the unknown pleasures of a solo album gives him the range to create a new, darker tone. That is what his latest album offers, and it flows through on tracks like The Cormorant. He replicates the sultry elongations of David Bowie, or at least tries to. Royal Morning Blue has the brass behind it to reciprocate those tones well. Albarn can switch the tone of a track seamlessly, and his abilities here are never untested. He is attempting something new, and it works.
It is not all plain sailing, though. For all the braggadocios innovations, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows suffers from an inability to reign in the pencil-pushing structure. Combustion is just that. An explosion of sound akin to that of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. That comparison is not a compliment for Albarn, who on other tracks can prevail in holding back the tide of madness. When an album is constructed on the formative years of an artist and the reflection that follows, it is a tough pill to swallow when he delves into the real madness. Some control is necessary, for if Albarn were to truly speak from the heart, he would bash at the piano and scream for eleven songs. Not everyone wants that. But that relief is founded on Combustion, and it opens the rest of the album up to a smoother bit of sailing, despite some choppy moments on Daft Wader and its clown horn finale.
Clearly, Albarn has not heard the word “purer,” for “more pure” plays hellfire with word processing and grammar checkers. But that is a small aside. It is one of the few weak spots on this very solid album. The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows relies on the former Britpop frontman far less than expected. His lyrics spring through with moderated simplicity, an effectiveness is found in the score behind him. He feeds the instruments around him with a tone to set and a beat to make, and the results are fascinating. Albarn throws his ideas and his musings to an orchestra ready to reciprocate the feeling of trust he has for the album, the artists around him and the audience in understanding him. It is a layered process that includes the listener. He performs to them, rather than for them, and making that difference clear is no small feat. Albarn trusts his audience with moving pieces of artistic risk.