There are songwriters who are best described as ‘what I see is what I sing’. That is, perhaps in more poetic terms, they more or less recount what they have seen or felt in real life. This can cause a split in the audience; where some enjoy the candour, others take issue with an alleged lack of creativity in that approach.
In the case of Damon Albarn, it is a lot more difficult to put oneself in any camp, although he is by all means a songwriter that sings about his experiences. Arguably, there are times when he sets himself apart as he takes this approach to the extreme, almost becoming a mirror to the outside world.
Studying his career closely, it becomes clear that most of his efforts have been directly inspired by the environments he was in when writing. Blur was a band that reflected and reacted to the British pop scene of the 90s, Gorillaz borrowed from hip-hop just as the genre that was exponentially rising in popularity in the early 2000s, and his fist solo album, 2014’s Everyday Robots, thematically circled the rise of technology and its part in our lives.
But there is an interesting thing about mirrors — how do we know that what we see in the reflection is reality in any sense of the word? Damon Albarn’s writing pushes just that boundary: often what he sings about sounds likely to be autobiographical, but then subtly shifts to feeling like he is singing both to and about us, and then from that it moves to something fictional. The neat aspects is, naturally, that unless we can dig into Albarn’s mind, we will never know which one is which.
His latest solo album (although he shies away from that descriptor) follows this idea. The Nearer the Fountain, The More Pure the Stream Flows absolutely feels like a Damon Albarn record, but in a different way than usual. He’s stepping away from the boisterous sounds of his other bands with atmospheric, almost ambient, instrumentals, which are intertwined with familiar funky rhythms, melancholic chord progressions and dreamy vocals.
What is certainly impressive is that The Nearer the Fountain proves once again what was proved previously with Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad, and The Queen: Damon Albarn can make most any music his own. The instrumental might be stylistically just about anything, but as soon as Albarn’s voice arises, it suddenly becomes ‘obviously a Damon song’.
The lyrics on this album open some new horizons to Albarn’s songwriting.The Nearer the Fountain, The More Pure the Stream Flows still possesses the songwriter’s knack for universality in the most unlikely places, but also introduces new ways for the audience to connect to it. The most potent track in that respect is “The Tower of Montevideo”, which tells a story that none of us could have experience, however, it feels strangely familiar. It’s hard to say precisely why this story of loneliness and alienation feels so keenly attuned to our consciences; once we attempt to rationalize what gives us this feeling, the magic fades, so let’s just listen and enjoy.
Albarn has noted that it was his mum who introduced him to the poet John Clare, whose poem he adapted for The Nearer the Fountain, The More Pure the Stream Flows’ title track, and the album as a whole. All the tracks are in one way or another are linked to his past. He obviously did not get bypassed by the pandemic, which of course took its toll on the record. During lockdown, there was often little to reflect on besides your own self. And so Albarn reflected on his life. The Nearer the Fountain, The More Pure the Stream Flows is perhaps the deepest inquiry into the artist – but again, we don’t really know if what we are seeing in the mirror is real.