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Damon Albarn has returned to a space of solitude in his second solo album The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. Its introspectiveness, so characteristic of Damon’s solo work, is particularly striking given it follows the release of Gorillaz’s collaboration-heavy 2020 album Song Machine. Elements of personal fragility and delicacy are inextricably tied to Albarn’s muses, in this case an evocative combination of the landscapes of Iceland, John Clare’s poetry, and the sense of urgency enkindled by the series of lockdowns musicians had to endure over the past year or so. Originally devised as an orchestral, instrumental piece reflecting the environment surrounding Iceland – a place which, for Albarn, represents what it means to be truly in touch with one’s environmental surroundings – this project retains the elements of Albarn’s discography which make him such a unique and thoughtful artist whilst enjoining them with new meditations on extracting that essence of the land and life which has always inspired him.

“Transformation and recreation are concepts that are fully grounded in his album”

The Nearer the Fountain found its footing in the form of orchestral workshops run by Albarn in his Icelandic residency. The intimacy of the album’s premise, recording, and outcome is so tangible, and this is an element reminiscent of his first solo project Everyday Robots (2014) as well as the later, lo-fi experimental tracks of Blur’s Think Tank (2003). In an interview with Zane Lowe, Albarn describes the strangeness of those initial recordings, involving analogue instruments from a bygone era, lending an accentuated retrospective feeling to the entire album. He also details the “holistic” process of making music and a sense of sadness and rebirth in his life which led to the contemplative basis of this new album. There’s a sense of fragility in this piece, an aspect which Albarn judges as “humans’ place within nature”, discussing it again with Apple Music. “And the loss is the transferral of everything. Nothing’s lost. The thing changes, it doesn’t actually disappear — it just has a different state or form.”

The record opens with its moving title track, inspired by John Clare's poem Love and Memory

Transformation and recreation are concepts that are fully grounded in his album. Albarn’s haunting vocals on the album’s titular, opening track set the tone for the rest of the album. His primary description of “the dark journey that leaves no returning”, which he has described repeatedly in relation to this project, finds itself translated into this emotional track. This “dark journey” details both a personal experience, but, moreover, is concerned with the uncertain future of humanity, this time portrayed through the lens of losing nature, losing touch with a world increasingly preoccupied with things it has created. Albarn also cites the poetic magic of John Clare and his transfiguration of nature into words as inspiration; he serves as a reminder for Albarn of his passion for turning feeling into music, a vocation he has pursued throughout his life by all manner of projects. “Royal Morning Blue”, opening with a glissando flourish, shares this somewhat reflective and nihilistic sentiment as Albarn recalls “memories of you / at the end of the world”. It seems that Albarn is keen for us to reconnect with our surroundings, but is doubtful as to whether we will truly be “saved” in this way.

The self-directed, atmospheric video for "Royal Morning Blue" was shot in Reykjavík

An avid, spiritual traveller all his life, Iceland is not the only country which has elicited this kind of fascination from Albarn. Outlining how “different environments inspire different textures and emotions”, Albarn describes a personal haunting experience in Uruguay, recalling the incident in “The Tower of Montevideo”. Alluding to a place that was once the tallest building in South America, Albarn describes the ominous sensory experience - “I can hear footsteps / ghost of an empty room”. The sense of emptiness is replicated in the song’s thin texture and unnerving, jazzy brass countermelodies, whereas the expanse of the tower amplifies his sense of loneliness; the “many rooms” are jarring. The feeling of dislocation and otherness which can accompany travelling is also evident in this track, where the “distant lands” and “faraway places” position Albarn in a state of meandering, something which is both lonely but striking as it tells us of his mental state, which, whilst physically in one place, may very well be working “somewhere else”.


Mountain View

Locating Damon Albarn

Meanwhile, “Polaris”, opening with a discordant, brassy flourish and followed by the familiar blending of stripped back beats and a synthesised harmony, is a stand-out track. Harking back to the more upbeat tracks of Everyday Robots such as “Mr Tembo”, the track culminates in a beautifully sung chorus aided by soft and layered backing vocals, which play with the syllabic composition of its title. Yet despite its full sound, “Polaris” plays on dual anxieties held by Albarn. He alludes to the fear of Nuclear War which he experienced in the 80′s, conjuring an image of that foreboding potential future, “watching the embers fall / on to sublime boulevards”. The appropriation of birds becoming separated from the flock, being “taken”, expresses this anxiety again; there is a sense of distance between the natural world which gets “blown off course” with this album as other elements of life become less certain. However, there’s also a feeling of hope and trust in nature that preserves in this track, and the album’s closing number “Particles” asks “are you coming back to me?” It’s not clear who or what Albarn is yearning for, but with the reintroduction of the album’s title, we question where this pure source of Albarn’s travels itself, and how we can experience its journey in his music.