Damon Albarn seems about as busy as a pop star can be. In March the frontman of both Blur and Gorillaz released “Rocket Juice & the Moon,” a trippy Afro-funk disc he made with drummer Tony Allen and Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; next month we’ll see the fruit of his recent collaboration with the great soul singer Bobby Womack. And this summer Blur is scheduled to play a massive concert at London’s Hyde Park to end the Olympic Games.
Given that schedule, you might expect frenzy from “Dr Dee,” the first album issued under Albarn’s name since 2003. Instead, the record opens with the sound of birds and rushing water and grows only more contemplative from there. A studio companion to a so-called “English opera” that premiered last year in Manchester, “Dr Dee” explores the life and work of the Elizabethan polymath John Dee; it features Albarn on vocals along with contributions by Allen, guitarist Simon Tong (formerly of the Verve) and members of the BBC Philharmonic, among others.
As music divorced from image, “Dr Dee” glitters intermittently. “Apple Carts” is as lovely (and bummed-out) a ballad as Blur’s “No Distance Left to Run,” while “Coronation” contains some gorgeously spooky choral singing. But extracting a narrative from these delicate sounds can feel like more trouble than they’re worth — even if you haven’t half as much happening as Albarn does.
Two stars (Out of four)
— Mikael Wood