Album reviews: Damon Albarn, Courtney Barnett, Idles, Rod Stewart

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The lyrical poeticism of Albarn’s record is indebted to a collection by John Clare (Linda Brownlee)
The lyrical poeticism of Albarn’s record is indebted to a collection by John Clare (Linda Brownlee)

Damon AlbarnThe Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows

★★★☆☆

Is there any artist today quite so restless as Damon Albarn? We’ve witnessed his swaggering Blur frontman; his lascivious cartoon persona in Gorillaz; his melancholic lonely boy on debut solo record, Everyday Robots. On his latest project, though, the 53-year-old proves he still has plenty of unexplored ground to cover.

Inspired by Iceland, where Albarn first visited 25 years ago, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows uses blooping synths and sullen piano notes to create its own wintry vistas. Albarn, his doleful voice here recalling Ray Davies or Elvis Costello, found himself returning to a collection of sessions recorded in Reykjavik after the death of his friend and collaborator, jazz drummer Tony Allen. The lyrical poeticism of the record is indebted to a collection by John Clare, given to Albarn by his mother. This perhaps explains why certain lines come off as self-conscious or crowbarred in – the album was initially conceived as an orchestral work.

There are plenty of wonderful moments. “Stay by my side,” he pleads on “Royal Morning Blue”, his voice wrapped in velvet folds of reverb and lingering echoes of brass. “Combustion” is a Fagradalsfjall eruption that bursts out from between the glacial “Daft Wader” and “The Cormorant”. This is by no means an easy record to fathom, but it does show – even after so many years – you’ll never catch Albarn resting on his laurels. ROC

Courtney BarnettThings Take Time, Take Time

Barnett processes trauma through everyday minutiae (Mia Mala McDonald)
Barnett processes trauma through everyday minutiae (Mia Mala McDonald)

★★★★☆

Courtney Barnett’s gift of spinning the seemingly mundane into something more profound is well-documented. She sings in a lopsided, spoken-word style; her lyrics are peppered with wry humour and an acceptance for whatever life throws at her. A good thing, too – life has hurled a few additional projectiles of late. This includes the Australian’s split from her long-term partner, fellow musician Jen Cloher, and being forced to watch in horror as bushfires ravaged her country through most of 2020.

Many of the songs on her new album, Things Take Time, Take Time, suggest Barnett has attempted to process all of this through everyday minutiae. “Maybe let’s cut out caffeine/ Tomorrow’s too late to reminisce/ Call me when you get this,” she sings on “Before You Gotta Go”. She’s bolshier on “Take It Day By Day”, singing over a playful bass hook: “Don’t stick that knife in the toaster/ Baby life is like a rollercoaster.”

Skilfully woven in is a warning not to fall into nihilistic tendencies – even when faced with impending disaster. “Stars in the sky are gonna die eventually, it’s fine,” she sings on “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight”. On “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To”, backed by beautifully textured Americana instrumentation, she wonders why we keep trying: “We did our best, but what does that really mean?” This album is Barnett navigating her way out of her own head, reminding herself – and her listeners – that it’s good to care about things. She couldn’t have picked a better time. ROC

Rod StewartThe Tears of Hercules

★☆☆☆☆

Rod Stewart hasn’t learnt any new tricks; he’s just gnawing on the same old bone. The Tears of Hercules is the sonic equivalent of watching your dad try to recreate a TikTok dance at a wedding reception after 10 pints. Produced with frequent collaborator Kevin Savigar, this is a 12-track cringefest on which Stewart celebrates carnal love in between songs about his late father. “Sex is cool and sex is nice/ Sex will lead you to paradise!” he announces on the George Michael pastiche, “Kookooaramabama”. Opener “One More Time” shows promise with its intricate guitar-picking and Stewart’s weathered croons, until he starts pressuring his ex into one last shag, for old time’s sake. Give me strength. ROC

IdlesCrawler

★★★★☆

Idles could have put out a typical Idles record and it would have been perfectly good. But Crawler is something more. On their fourth record (as raucous as ever), the Bristol punks put out some of their most interesting and introspective music yet.

The album’s opener sets the scene for what’s to come. “MTT 420 RR” is cinematic in a way that feels epic and intimate all at once. Joe Talbot’s voice fights its way through dense synths like a machete cutting through the jungle. When he compares the body of a maimed motorcyclist to a “jelly roll”, it’s clear that Idles’ fondness for dark laughs is intact. Even more so when you consider Talbot’s near-death experience behind the wheel. The band’s signature punk rock sound underpins the album, but it’s on the stylistically divergent tracks that Idles flex a new skill. Crawler is ambitious in its scope, and it almost always pays off. AN

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