Musical polymath Damon Albarn has returned with a new album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. It marks the Britpop icon and Gorillaz mastermind’s second solo venture, following 2014’s Everyday Robots, and his first release on his new home-grown label, Transgressive Records.
Those of you who are hoping for ‘Girls & Boys’ or ‘Feel Good Inc’ era Albarn, look away now. The Blur frontman has a habit of distilling the various aspects of his persona into his numerous musical projects. With Blur, we were introduced to heartthrob Albarn; with Gorillaz, the anarchic Albarn. But, with his solo work – and especially this latest album – we’ve been introduced to a far more melancholy man, one who seems to be wading through a cloud of grief, who finds himself staring out into the grey North Sea without knowing how he got there.
The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows was originally intended as an orchestral piece inspired by the landscapes of Iceland. In fact, Albarn recently became a citizen of the insular nation, having visited Reykjavík for the first time in 1996, at the height of Blur’s fame, Albarn has been infatuated with the country ever since. From the opening, titular track, it’s clear how much the panoramas of Iceland informed the sweeping, elemental ambience contained within this new album, which takes its title from the John Clare poem ‘Love and Memory’.
Throughout The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, Albarn conjures a variety of cavernous piano-driven soundscapes all backed by the retrograde pulse of a long-defunct drum machine. These spacious, reverb-laden tracks see Albarn confront, amongst other things, the recent passing of his friend and collaborator, Tony Allen, at one point finding himself unable to come to terms with the fleeting nature of life as he sings: “You seemed immortal … to my heart you were nearest.” Indeed, as the album progresses into the sonic fog of ‘The Cormorrant’, ‘Combustion’, and ‘The Tower Of Montevideo’, Albarn paints Turner-esque portraits of desolate beaches, empty streets, and crumbling ruins, giving sound and body to the oppressive isolation, not only of the Icelandic landscape itself but also the forced seclusion the world has been submitted to over the last two years
The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, in a paradoxically joyous way, is unflinching in his melancholia. Even comparatively upbeat tracks like ‘Royal Morning Blue’ – surely the album’s standout track – seem to buckle under some immense, hidden burden – cascading down towards a stillness broken only by the shimmer of piano keys and Albarn’s wry, coarse vocals. Here, we see Damon bringing the world around him into the fold, whether it be his own grief or the white noise of waves breaking on the shore.
The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows might not offer the most jovial listening experience, but that doesn’t mean it’s not uplifting. At times, Albarn seems to lose his way a little, but by ‘Particles’, the final track, he seems to have reached a moment of sublime realisation, leaving us broken and yet strangely overjoyed. All in all, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows is a phenomenally rewarding listen.