CD Review – Dr. Dee


Damon Albarn

Dr. Dee



When I saw Damon Albarn's "Dr. Dee" sitting on the desk in our offices I got pretty excited about it. I had a soft spot for Brit-pop in the late 90's and I'm not ashamed of it. Between my brother and I the first two Blur albums got a lot of play in our house. Then I found out that "Dr. Dee" was some sort of opera about sixteenth century alchemist and mystic John Dee, an advisor to and personal physician of Queen Elizabeth I. This was also exciting for me, but in a different way. I am an English Major, and as such I get my sick jollies from anything relating to mad elizabethan alchemists. I did a little more sleuthing and discovered that "Dr. Dee" was originally supposed to be about super-heroes and that when was he approached as a contributor, legendary curmudgeon and comic writer Alan Moore convinced Albarn to make it about Dee instead then promptly disappeared back into his castle. This  was starting to get pretty god-damn exciting. This was the delicious centre of an unlikely venn diagram of joy for me: Alan Moore, 90's Brit-pop and elizabethan alchemists. Then I actually got around to listening to it, and my excitement decreased. 

Originally intended to be about superheroes, Dr. Dee is an opera about 16th century alchemist, mystic, advisor, and physician of Queen Elizabeth I. Dr. Dee is It's an actual opera,; nNot a rock-opera., which I was really looking forward to. Listening to an opera playing, quite loudly, through a computer and actually seeing an opera performed live are completely different things. For example,the eleventh track "Preparation" iIs little more than a frenetic and swelling drum beat that goes on for three minutes,. but it wWould've been nice to witnesssee what was actually happeningoing on thereg.  Much of "Dr Dee" is performed with period instruments such as the Shawm or Crumhorn, which all sound like Oboes to me, but several lengthy wikipedia entries tell me are quite different from the modern Oboe, acAlbarn's Harmonium can be heard throughout, and blends with the light orchestration and classical guitar provided by former Blur and The Verve guitarist Simon Tong. These Pperiod-specific instruments, such as shawm or crumhorn, and light orchestrations set "Dr. Dee" apart from traditional Iitalian opera;. Damon Albarn has made something original here, and distinctly English in originhere. tThe boisterous and over the top Italian style operatic singing is replaced with Alburn's thin, distinct voice and all heavy lifting is done by a chorus. The actual operatic singers in "Dr. Dee" weren't my taste, but there was something very Bbritish about them that I enjoyed. 


Albarn has always been a versatile songwriter. From the greasy disco-pop of 1993's "Girls and Boys", through to the heavy and incredibly catchy "Song 2", and in to one of the strangest collaborations of our era in, “The Gorillaz,” Albarn has been able to find success across multiple genres. I am by no means qualified to review an opera, but as a brit-pop and elizabethan alchemist enthusiast I'd say "Dr. Dee" is pretty good, and something I would absolutely go and see live. in the unlikely event that it were to come through here.


Neil Adams

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