We’ve been watching the cricket as usual at Uncut today, but even I’ve noticed that the Olympics have kicked off this afternoon. A useful reminder of this is the fact that an embargo has been lifted this morning on reviewing Damon Albarn’s Monkey CD; the studio recalibration of his Chinese opera, “Monkey: Journey To The West”.
With those Jamie Hewlett/Albarn idents for the BBC Olympics coverage and all, a cynic might suspect that some pretty calculated commercial exigencies were being chased here – though of course suggesting as much would be disrespecting a high-minded artist like Damon Albarn, who’d never involve himself with anything so commercially tawdry these days, surely?
I imagine, though, that Albarn might be amused that such a clever marketing campaign was pushing the most uncommercial album of his career (apart from “Demo Krazy”, or whatever that lo-fi thing was called years back) into the spotlight. For the past few years I’ve been loosely admiring, but generally underwhelmed by the records he’s been involved in, from Blur’s “Think Tank” onwards, probably being one of those people who believe that the antagonistic and mercurial presence of Graham Coxon pushed him to his best work, and also curbed some of his more self-indulgent tendencies.
“Journey To The West”, though, is unexpectedly fun. The suspicion, among people like me who haven’t seen the stage show in the past year or so, has largely been that the project is written fairly faithfully in the Chinese opera idiom. But the recorded version, at least, is much less straitjacketed than that. The press release helpfully informs me that Albarn stuck to writing in the typically Chinese pentatonic scale. But the music here also draws mischievously from plenty of electronica, from Krautrock on, and there’s a clear debt to the systems operas of Philip Glass and John Adams (notably, I imagine, to “Nixon In China”, though I must admit I haven’t heard that in years).
There’s also Albarn’s finessed melodic sensibilities, though apart from the fairground waltz of “I Love Buddha” – the spit of “The Debt Collector” from “Park Life”, amusingly – it’s unusually hard to find affinities with his back catalogue; Albarn, it should be noted, doesn’t join in with the all-Mandarin vocals. My favourites here are “The Living Sea” and “Heavenly Peach Banquet”, both pivoting around female vocals, that have a glassy, delicate prettiness.
All in all, though, it’s a captivating listen. Albarn clearly likes working within the rigid parameters of a prescribed project these days, but it’s still surprising that theoretically the strictest format of all should stimulate him to make his most playful and enjoyable record in years. Still don’t like Jamie Hewlett’s artwork, but I suppose it’s better than Banksy, who did “Think Tank”’s sleeve.