Any casual fans wondering what that Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn has been up to since the graphic outfit split last year will probably not find this album the most germane of listens. When you stick the Dr Dee CD into your computer, iTunes laughably categorises it as indie rock. It really isn't.
First staged at Manchester's international festival last year, Dr Dee is an operatic work that revisits John Dee, a renaissance man of the Elizabethan era. His expertise in mathematics and astronomy earned him the ear of Elizabeth I, but his thirst for occult knowledge led to his downfall. A more evolved version of the opera is due this summer, as part of the Cultural Olympiad.
This is also Albarn's first solo album proper (not counting the demo collection, Democrazy, from 2003), and Dr Dee finds the occasional Blur singer at his most heterogeneous: refracting folk and early church music through the African influences he has been steeped in since 2002's Mali Music. The album opens with running water, Devonian birdsong and an organ-heavy track called "The Golden Dawn", a reference to the magickal society probably best known to rock fans as the playground of Aleister Crowley.
A series of these ancient-modern polyphonic stylings alternate with more overtly operatic tracks. Of these, "Temptation Comes in the Afternoon" requires perhaps the biggest leap of faith from Albarn's core audience – too big, some will wail, scrabbling for their Parklife CD. But fans whose tastes have been emboldened by Albarn's forays away from the mainstream – such as his recent Afrobeat album with Rocket Juice & the Moon – will find much to engage them here.
The biggest draw comes in the folk-leaning songs. Beginning with "Apple Carts" and concluding with "The Dancing King" there is an Albarn solo album of sorts here, hidden among the stern runes. Erupting from the 16th century into the 21st, "The Marvelous Dream" is a polemic that opens with the fly-past in honour of Kate'n'Wills, before considering "alcohol, the holiday and the drug and bass drum".
Whichever your preferred version of Albarn – Britpop linchpin, ex-Gorilla, world music enabler – he has never been the obvious go-to guy for obscure dead occultists. The idea for Dr Dee initially came from countercultural figure Alan Moore, author of cult comic series Watchmen and V for Vendetta. His early involvement in the project ended in bad feeling, and his unfinished, unused libretto for the project has since been published.
Although songs such as "9 Point Star" maintain the link with Dee's obsessions, physically tracing the occultist nine pointer to an incantatory groove, this record isn't anywhere near as dense with magick as you might have expected. Rather, Albarn remains nostalgic for a strange, lost England, one not a million miles from PJ Harvey's on elegant, moving songs such as "Cathedrals".
There is a recurring fascination at the parallels between Dee's day and Damon's, and a strong sense of continuation with 2007's The Good, the Bad and the Queen album. "We are the out-of-time people of the rose," he mourns, on an album that could be subtitled (after Harvey) "Let England Thrum".
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