Album Reviews

Damon Albarn – The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows

(Transgressive) UK release date: 12 November 2021


Damon Albarn - The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows Lawrence (Hayward) possibly has the strangest career trajectory of any British musician. Having started with Felt, a tremulous indie outfit exuding literate sensitivity whose ‘80s albums only sound more dingily fitting the more your old tapes warp and decay, he moved on to Denim, who traded in rinky-dink synthesised novelty songs about tampons and tinned vegetables. Nobody saw this coming. It’s like if Milan Kundera started writing for Modern Toss.

But Lawrence’s path only stands out because the left turn was so sudden. Most musicians with a long career, assuming they don’t descend into self-parody or join the nostalgia treadmill, end up different from where they started, the metamorphosis is just more incremental. Damon Albarn’s development from bouncy mini-mod to plangent balladeer is not one that too many bowl-cut revellers leaping about to There’s No Other Way might have predicted – although the undoubted high point of Blur’s first album, the relentless weeping dirge of Sing, provides a small clue in retrospect.

The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows is a lovely album, and a big step forward from Albarn’s previous solo effort, Everyday Robots, which was pleasant but forgettable, and mostly noteworthy for its interesting samples. Fountain is like the morose ghost of that album, a collection of gloriously misty, chilly song skeletons that parade past without ever quite revealing their secrets. This is doubtless partly due to their genesis: these pieces, inspired by Icelandic geography – and you know that if this were a ‘90s Melody Maker review there’d be a picture captioned “Nice one, geyser” – were originally intended for an orchestral treatment, but the pandemic meant that they were realised with far simpler means. Closing track Particles, for example, is an intimately mournful paean to someone unspecified over a frostily moonlit electric piano, which could almost have fit onto Paul Simon’s masterpiece of mid-30s melancholy, Still Crazy After All These Years, and claims that “the particles are joyous as they alight on your skin”, like a surreal physicist’s version of The Carpenters’ Close To You. At the other end of the record, the title track paints Albarn as a crepuscular wraith weaving through a frozen surf drone, with some quite beautifully eerie Jarboe-style backing vocals.

Elsewhere the song structures are a fraction more fleshed out, from the brash bedroom Bond theme of single Royal Morning Blue to the bowties-undone late-night swing of Darkness To Light, a sort of sad spectral cousin of To The End. Daft Wader (yes, seriously) is the closest to an Everyday Robots piano ballad, but is invaded partway through by the relentless bleeping of the Reykjavik champion barcode-scanning team (possibly). It also features an inscrutable reference to “cross-dressers of these terrible roads”, and the lyrics on this album are poetically allusive, which is perhaps unsurprising as the title is cribbed from a poem by working-class Romantic visionary John Clare. One song opens in Borgesian style with the statement, “The tower of Montevideo has many rooms”, before describing a cat who “lies on the daybed and abandons the world as the hours slide off the page like clouds”, like a louche feline Byron. You have to admit, it’s a fair old way from “Popscene, alriiiiiight!”.

The instrumentals are no less intriguing, Giraffe Trumpet Sea tumbling jazzy notes like a low-key Pat Metheny, and Esja’s wide-angled soundscape resembles mid-‘80s Tangerine Dream, whilst special mention must be made of Combustion, which jumps unannounced from a groaning Penderecki string nightmare to a free jazz boogaloo in the disco of the damned. The album’s rhythms mostly come from the sort of antediluvian drum machine that can make all of two sounds, “pok” and “tss”. This is introduced in second track, The Cormorant, which has a beat like Blur’s cheery Lot 105, but where that was a bingo hall Bontempi shuffle, this is a cold constellation of keys and disconnected guitar gestures with the tiniest dub influence, like the revenant phantoms of the Twin Peaks road house band jamming after hours.

The album isn’t perfect, and although Albarn’s vocals are well phrased and honest, they can occasionally puncture the atmosphere by coming off as wheedling – in another universe there’s a version of this record with Scott Walker on the mic, and it’s mind-blowing – but it’s an immersive, mysterious listen. We might have expected Albarn in his 50s to turn pop statesman and offer well behaved tunes on a grand piano, but instead we get fragile, autumnal isolationism… or “synthesizers in the rain”, as Lawrence might have put it.


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