Words by Tim Cumming
It’s the reign of Elizabeth I and Dr John Dee, having survived imprisonment by bloody Mary, is now court astrologer, wizard, mathematician, cartographer, alchemist, spy and one of the driving forces of the English renaissance. Dee was one of the Queen’s favourites, until his occult partnership with Edward Kelley led to exile, and a public fall from grace that saw his life end in poverty in Manchester. His house and library in Mortlake were ransacked, and his posthumous reputation all but destroyed. Centuries later, Aleister Crowley imagined himself as the reincarnation of Kelley, and the voice of the Great Beast can be heard here speaking Enochian, the supposedly angelic language found in Dee’s journals.
It’s just one of sundry eldritch quirks in Damon Albarn’s magical folk opera. Albarn is in command of subtle forces here – not of magic but of time. The modern and the antique – Elizabethan polyphony, drones, choral voices, guitar and ritual incantation – can mix to great effect. This is not a narrative so much as an evocation of Dee’s England – of science, statecraft, marriage and magic. The music and libretto ranges between present-day and pastoral visions of England under Elizabeth’s reign, the air populated with angels, demons and ‘aethyrs’ as much as diesel fumes and Wi-Fi. There’s a probing, lyrical melancholia and a dream logic weaving throughout, from the drone of the opening ‘Golden Dawn’, through the beautiful culmination of ‘The Marvelous Dream’ to the sound of birds and bells that opens the album, and closes it, like a magic box. It is a wonderful creation.