Damon Albarn Blurs Past and Present on 'The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows'

BY Tom BeedhamPublished Nov 11, 2021

What's Damon Albarn to do with a pandemic? Blur hasn't performed since a one-off gig for one of Albarn's Africa Express events in London in 2019, the seemingly pandemic-proof Gorillaz are busy celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut, and the Good the Bad & the Queen is a wrap; how about a solo album inspired by 17th century poetry then? Enter The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows.

Gleaned from a line in the John Clare poem "Love and Memory," the album title is alluded to in its first track, which offers a contemporary adaptation of the first two stanzas in Clare's poem. For Albarn, that mostly means swapping out Clare's formal thous and thees, though he does skip ahead to cut and paste some lines from Clare's seventh stanza ("The year has its winter / As well as its May / The sweetest leave us / And the fairest decay") before landing on the words that open the third — the same Albarn's album and the first track borrow their titles from.

Clare's poem balances a sense of loss with appreciation for life's gifts; Albarn's subtractive touch denies his bleak, observational lyrics the sense of closure Clare's glass-half-full reflections do. Fountain goes on to rehash old memories like a doomed time traveler trying to right the course of history, Albarn returning to the album's title phrase on "Royal Morning Blue" and "Particles" as if attempting to return to the poem's lesson or rewrite its ending, his ending, too.

As a meditation on memory, Fountain frequently measures memory's transportive quality against the limitations of the physical world. On "The Cormorant," Albarn is imprisoned on an island unable to touch the passage of time, but he can "drift day dreaming"; on "Royal Morning Blue," the persistence of thought and memory resist the passage of time. 

It's a more focused effort than scattered 2014 solo debut Everyday Robots and more delicate than the bulk of his back catalogue, but Albarn's still drawing outside the lines. The album began its life as a classically inclined instrumental piece inspired by Iceland's rugged beauty, but when the pandemic hit, he had to pack it up and finish it in Devon, a shire county in South West England, where Fountain's sound profile exploded to include synthesizers, drum machines, and all manner of noises.

While "Royal Morning Blue" matches a downcast provincialism with the pulsing verve and buoyancy of a Gorillaz track; "Combustion" smacks with sax skronk and deflating ambient synth passages; "Darkness to Light" swings like a modern doo-wop crooner. "Esja," on the other hand, is a patient orchestral instrumental, mounting strings communicating a ceiling-less expansion. But as the instrumentation progresses higher and higher in the octaves, the intensity feels claustrophobic — distance has a way of freeing you as much as it isolates.

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