Damon Albarn - A Musical Pioneer

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When Blur first emerged, Damon Albarn seemed to me little more than a quirky songwriter among Britpop's grey and repetitious ranks. Over the years, however, my perception of him has changed considerably. Now, I rate him alongside Ray Davies and Elvis Costello as one of England's great, unpredictable songwriters.

After Blur, Albarn has involved himself in one ambitious musical project after another. And to his credit, he has pulled off even the most unlikely concepts. His ventures seem to be guided by imagination and instinct. In an age of formulaic pop, such idiosyncrasy is to be treasured.

It wasn't always this way. In 1991 I was left totally unmoved by Blur's debut, Leisure. In the fading glow of Madchester, the album seemed half-baked and unoriginal. Maybe there were hints of the great pop songs that Blur would later write, but I just found the likes of There's No Other Way silly. I didn't listen to Blur again until Parklife in 1994. That record was unquestionably of its time, but the dynamic pop songs (Girls and Boys, This Is a Low) are still enjoyable today.

At this point, I still wouldn't have imagined the challenges Albarn would later set himself. The Great Escape struck me as uninspired and repetitious. I thought Blur would go on to produce variations on Parklife until the public had tired of their charms, but their self-titled album's departure from their defiantly English and ironic oeuvre came as a surprise. Guided by Graham Coxon's enthusiasm for more abstract and lo-fi sounds, they survived the death-knell of Britpop with unexpected ease. And having done so, Blur became increasingly adventurous.

13 and its successor, Think Tank, offered little trace of the cheery boys-about-town who had given us Country House. Eclectic and often bleak, 13 is their most interesting and fully realised work. Tender was a song with guts and sincerity, qualities that ditties like Girls and Boys desperately lacked.

But even this transformation did not hint at the ventures Albarn would undertake this decade. Within a short time, he embarked on a series of exciting – some would say, outlandish – projects. 2001 saw the incredible virtual band, Gorillaz, fuse hip-hop, Latin music and reggae. Their ambitious debut album evidenced a sharp ear for various styles.

Then, in 2002, Albarn collaborated with west African musicians for the remarkable Mali Music album. The songs intrigued me and furthered my enthusiasm for world music. A musical fusion of quite a different character was delivered in 2007. With Paul Simonon, the Verve's Simon Tong, and former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, Albarn formed the Good, the Bad, and the Queen. This is the most powerful and enigmatic work that he has produced to date.

Albarn's inspirations here are once again quintessentially English, but the songs possess more dimensions than that of early Blur. The approach suggests a strange and grim form of contemporary folk, the shadowy reflections on London life making Parklife seem like a brightly coloured comic strip.

Perhaps Albarn's most unexpected project has been Monkey: Journey to the West. Working alongside theatre director Chen Shi-Zheng and Gorillaz man Jamie Hewlett, he created an extraordinary collection of music to accompany the stage performance.

I am convinced that Albarn will surprise us again in the coming decade. With news that he is to direct the opening ceremonies for the forthcoming Olympics, it's obvious that he's hardly resting on his laurels. Instead, Albarn appears to thrive on fresh challenges, a true pop renaissance man.

Reproduced by Kind Permission of Alan McGee

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Read 3753 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 15:37
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