Years Ago, Damon Albarn Fell in Love With Iceland. Now He’s Paying Musical Tribute
When Damon Albarn was little, he had a recurring dream where he levitated over a giant landmass of black sand. He always woke up feeling energized by the mental voyage, but he had no idea where it took place until he stumbled on a National Geographic television special about Iceland while Blur were touring America in the mid-Nineties. “I realized that might have been the place I was dreaming of,” he tells Rolling Stone. “And so I went there and fell in love with the place.”
Since his first visit in 1997, he’s gone back three or four times a year, and a few years ago he even bought a house on the island. His fascination with Iceland has culminated in his upcoming solo LP, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. Out November 12th, it’s a loose concept record inspired by the country’s natural landscapes that Albarn originally planned on recording with an orchestra, but ultimately cut with only two other musicians when the pandemic forced him to work with a much smaller crew.
“It’s like we were a house band on a cruise ship that’s anchored somewhere and there’s nobody on the boat besides the band,” he says. “That’s the kind of mood I wanted to set.”
The project began back in January 2020, about two months before the lockdown began, when Albarn brought 15 musicians to his house in Iceland. The plan was to simply gaze out the window onto landscapes surrounding the house and try to capture that natural beauty in music.
“Everything is incredibly vibrant up there because it’s so north and so light,” he says. “There are extremes of light and temperature and wind velocity. There are some points in the year where the panes of glass in the front of my house concave and convect with the movement of the wind. It’s like [the] whole of the outside world is going through some sort of weird vortex. It’s a very extreme place, and that’s what we were tapping into.”
Albarn headed back to his other home in Devon, England, and planned on bringing an orchestra onboard to record the music he and his collaborators had written in Iceland, but the pandemic had other plans and the project stalled for many months. “I felt like I had complete stuff in Iceland, but the world was different and I was in a totally different environment,” he says. “I wanted to express my feelings, my interior world, at that moment.”
In January of this year, Albarn went into a Devon studio with Simon Tong — his bandmate in the Good, the Bad & the Queen — and Mike Smith, a longtime touring member of both Blur and Gorillaz. They banged out the entire album in a matter of weeks. “It’s all based on the mood that I established in Iceland,” Albarn says. “It has orchestral rehearsal tapes running through the whole thing.”
The title comes from the John Clare poem “Love and Memory.” “My mum gave me his book when I was a teenager,” says Albarn. “I’d taken that line out a long time ago, and I’d completely divorced it from its origin. When I decided to record in Iceland and just stare out the window and play whatever I saw, literally turning the outline of the landscape into music, I put that phrase with it. I realized there was much more in it that was relevant to how I felt than I previously thought.”
Many of the lyrics on The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows reflect a profound sense of isolation brought about either by the lockdown or day-to-day life in rural Iceland. And “The Cormorant” was inspired by Albarn’s swims in the Icelandic sea where he regularly encountered cormorant birds and bull seals. “I think she knows I’m a pathetic intruder,” he sings. “Into the abyss.”
That sensation of life in the abyss continues with “Royal Morning Blue” (“You put on your robes and disappear”), “The Daft Wader” (“The rockets we let off are hidden now beneath the snow”), “Darkness to Light” (“Crushed satellites dance/In silent conga”), “The Tower of Montevideo” (“Once there was a cinema/We had parties”), and “Polaris” (“I miss the alarm and the music therein”).
The album ends on a more optimistic note with “Particles” where Albarn returns to the dreams of his youth. “When the night patterns the room,” he sings. “And black sands return/I will drift away from land/As the sky begins its burn/Only you, darling, can call me back in/For the particles are joyous as they alight on your skin.”
The song was born from a chance encounter with a rabbi on a flight to Iceland. “We were talking about particles and the inevitably of particles finding each other,” Albarn says. “All particles are joyous since they connect with something else, and they create a reaction and that is the joy of the universe. … The rabbi came from Winnipeg and now lives in Vancouver. I can’t remember her bloody name, which is really annoying since I really wanted to seek her out and send her a copy of the record.”
He previewed some of the new songs at a series of special U.K. shows in August and September, and in February he’s launching a proper British solo tour where he’ll finally get to play the material with an orchestra. He hopes to bring the show to America at some point. “I suppose that’s if anyone likes it over there,” he says. “It’s as simple as that.”
In the meantime, he recently cut a new Gorillaz song with Bad Bunny in Jamaica. “That’s the seed for the next Gorillaz album,” he says. “I put my seed in the ground and I’ll see what kind of beanstalk grows from it this time.”
Plans are still vague, but he wants to recapture the spirit of the group’s 2001 debut LP. “I think I’m always in some ways trying to work like that since it was so unpretentious, so in the moment.” Albarn says. “That was its charm. I’m trying to not be so conscious about making music.”
He’s even less sure about what’s going to happen with Blur in the future. The band re-formed in March 2019 for a surprise three-song set at the Africa Express event in Leytonstone, England, but have been otherwise inactive since the conclusion of their 2015 tour. Albarn says part of the magic of Blur is that they hit the road very infrequently, making each tour a monumental occasion for the fans.
“I don’t think you can overdo those sort of things,” he says. “They are so imbued with what you were like when you were younger. There has to be a real buildup of feelings and reasons to do something. It’s important stuff and it shouldn’t be squandered … I’m not sure about touring touring [with Blur in the future], but I hate to think I’d never sing those songs again with those guys.”
Blur and Gorillaz remain enormous draws on the road, making Albarn one of the few performers on earth who can pack arenas and headline large festivals with two completely different acts with two completely different sets of songs. “I sometimes think I’m an idiot for being like that,” he says. “I should somehow make it all work together. But I don’t know … I’m unpredictable, which works in my favor, and is also a bit of an albatross since I can’t consolidate anything.”
One thing he does know is that Iceland will continue to be big part of his life. “They gave me citizenship last year,” he says. “They’re very kind to me doing that and I should repay the compliment by giving them a larger proportionment of my time.”