Birds chirp, woodwinds trill, Damon Albarn sings ever so gently over pastoral guitar. In the mold of British eccentrics such as Julian Cope and Robyn Hitchcock, Albarn turns the opening tracks on his soundtrack for the English opera “Dr. Dee” into a bucolic reverie. Brit acid-folkies the Incredible String Band could probably relate. It’s a promising start, but there’s no finishing kick.
Albarn brings wit and intelligence to almost everything he does, from commercially successful bands such as Blur and Gorillaz to countless one-offs involving talented musicians from around the world. He’s the closest thing to a Renaissance man in British rock, so it makes sense that he’d take on the story of John Dee, a 16th Century sorcerer-scientist who advised Queen Elizabeth I.
But “Dr. Dee” (Virgin), his soundtrack for the Rufus Norris opera that debuted in England last year, never fulfills its promise. It creaks along, peppered by stuffy opera singers, slow-moving elegies, and unintentional silliness (the wordless vocals and huffing, puffing circus music of “Watching the Fire That Waltzed Away”; the cartoonish crooning in “Temptation Comes in the Afternoon”). The soundtrack strives for a quirky, melancholy resonance befitting its tragic subject, but too often it comes off as gimmicky and ponderous.