In many ways, Damon Albarn’s official second solo album is as influenced by his physical surroundings in Iceland, as his early breakthrough albums with the band Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape – offered a window into the British youth culture of ‘90’s. The singer/songwriter became an official citizen of Iceland in 2020. Early work on the music presented on The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows, began as orchestral explorations with Icelandic musicians in his home there in Reykjavik, where the mist drifting down from mountains, the cold winter winds, the long dark mornings, the surrounding sea, and sense of isolation all make themselves felt in the instrumentation. When the lockdown, made it challenging to work with a full orchestra, Albarn worked with Simon Tong, guitarist with The Verve, who’d collaborated on The Good, The Bad, & The Queen, and Mike Smith, who’d played a supportive role with Blur and Gorrilaz on extra keyboards and sax, and shaped his more expansive cinematic soundscapes into pop songs and ballads more reflective of his 2014 solo album, Everyday Robots.
The album’s lengthy title, drawn from a John Clare poem, “Love and Memory,” comes up frequently in the lyrics of the 11 tracks here, with it giving the title to the opening song. The haunting instrumentals work with the idea that even when we’ve lost a loved one or moved on from a meaningful experience, there’s something of the person, of the things that touched us that lingers with us, the way “the sweetest leave us with the fairest decay.” While the winter sun rises late in the morning sky, the night often explodes with the colors of the Northern Lights, which leads Albarn to reflect on the cosmic “Particles” of the universe, that “are joyous as they alight on your skin.” While the overall feel here is stark, rich with ambient sonic colors, there’s also the “Combustion” with the noisier urban culture, an instrumental that with horns echoing the squall of machines and wild birds in flight, a gentle jazzy piano holding the center.
The funereal “Daft Wader,” seeks to capture the burial rites of Iran, an attempt to honour the beauty of an ancient culture that seeks to honor it martyrs with “whipping flame/We will put up our red flags and cry… Then light up bonfires for you.” While the urban jazz sax of “Tower of Montivedeo,” captures the Latin rhythm of the “new worlds and faraway places” of Uruguay in South America, where “I can hear music/I can hear footsteps/Ghost of an empty room.” But much of The Nearer Fountain… is closer to Albarn’s Icelandic heart, where “Esje” seeks to paint in musical strokes the feel of the great mountains, even as the piano and ticking sounds of birds in the wind in “Polaris,” and each day you awaken to the “Royal Mountain Blue.” Albarn, with help from Tong and Smith, takes the listener on a spiritual journey, in touch with our natural world, and an celebration of diverse responses to the every flowing stream of inspiration.
Brian Q. Newcomb
For more of Brian Q. Newcomb’s music reviews, check out The Fire Note
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