Dr. Dee promised to be a challenging work from the outset of the project. Initially it was planned as a collaboration between Albarn, his Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett, and graphic novel titan Alan Moore. Moore reportedly dropped the project early on but did leave the basic narrative idea, a musical about the life of John Dee, one of Queen Elizabeth I’s closest advisors. Dr. Dee had a well-received run in Manchester, garnering acclaim from various publications during its eight-day stint at the Palace Theater. Capitol has now decided to release the soundtrack as a standalone piece.
In many cases soundtracks and scores have had flickering impact when isolated from their visual accompaniment. Dr. Dee slowly reveals that while it’s no exception to that rule, it still attempts transcendence. How close it comes to succeeding over the course of its 18 tracks may be the most stunning aspect of the recording. Dr. Dee announces itself wisely with “Bells”, an instrumental driven by a melancholy organ arrangement that runs over field recordings. While that may be a standard go-to for an introductory device, it became a standard for a reason: when it’s done right, it works marvelously, as “Bells” shows.
“Bells” also proves to be the calm before the insane storm of wild-eyed genre-hopping that characterizes the entire recording. “Apple Cart” gets things off to a beautiful start, being eerily reminiscent of some of Shearwater’s early work. It’s also the first of several pieces which presents Albarn as a focal point. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the ensuing highlights of Dr. Dee tend to have Albarn taking the vocal parts, which is due, in part, to being able to literally hear his commitment to the material. Of course, it also helps that they’re some of the record’s most accessible and pop-oriented tracks, playing right into Albarn’s wheelhouse. Among those, “Saturn”, “The Marvelous Dream”, and the stunning closer, “The Dancing King” are high points that showcase Albarn and distract from some of Dr. Dee‘s most unfortunate, overwrought excesses.
There are multiple instances in Dr. Dee where it’s easy to wish it would’ve stood tall as a defiantly pop or rock opera instead of trying mightily to fit within traditional operatic style. Most notably is when the opera vocalist enters during the last half of “Temptation Comes in the Afternoon” and nearly derails it. As a soundtrack, Dr. Dee has serious trouble navigating these portions successfully. In a two-sided knife twist, though, its most unconventional moments become spectacular. Largely, apart from the Albarn-heavy songs, the ones that stand out are the brief instrumentals and the wordless chorus pieces. Each one brings something unique to the table and several are propelled by former Fela Kuti drummer/legend Tony Allen and the 20-piece BBC Philharmonic orchestra.
One of the briefest of these instrumentals is also the most fascinating. In a departure from the overall mood of the latter half of Dr. Dee comes “Moon (Interlude)”, which features some out-of-nowhere near-shredding on acoustic guitar and nothing else. It’s those small moments that do wonders in helping Dr. Dee remain a fascinating work. Whenver it seems like the album is about to lose its footing entirely, a moment like that will rope it back in. After a while, Dr. Dee essentially becomes a high-wire act in which Albarn teases potential disaster and tests limits, but always reigns things in just in time. Thankfully, more often than not, when he does return to form, he does it so spectacularly that any small missteps are forgiven.
Dr. Dee is unquestionably a towering, ambitious, and inarguably complete work that flies in the face of convention, as typically suits Albarn these days. It’s accessible in parts, immensely challenging in others, and beguiling in its entirety. That incomprehensible strangeness and startling originality very well may be Dr. Dee‘s neatest trick. It keeps the listener listening and anxiously awaiting what comes next all the way through to its closing moments. That alone is worth the post-curtain call applause.