Monkey: Journey to the West (Album Review)
Don’t worry about the grunting pigs – stick with Damon Albarn’s opera and you’ll hear some real musical magic
These days, Damon Albarn seems to be making a career out of doing things he shouldn’t. Every shred of historical evidence suggests that it’s a bad idea for rock stars to dabble in world music, or form supergroups, or get involved in the world of musical theatre. He’s already done the first two with an assurance that verges on the maddening, but the latter seems a tougher call still. Here is the dark and treacherous road down which lurk We Will Rock You, Jesus Christ Superstar and the awesome union of Catherine Zeta-Jones, Fish from Marillion and Ladysmith Black Mambazo that occurs on Jeff Wayne’s musical version of Spartacus. You need a lot of chutzpah to head down it, but, as has oft been remarked, chutzpah is not a commodity in which the former Blur frontman is deficient.
It’s notable that the central character of Journey to the West, the Ming Dynasty novel on which Albarn’s “pop opera” is based is a peculiarly difficult hero to love. Self-important, vain, utterly convinced of his own brilliance, Monkey succeeds in irritating the crap out of almost everyone he comes into contact with, but nonetheless eventually triumphs over adversity and reveals himself to be abundantly more talented than his peers. What, you wonder, could possibly have attracted the notoriously self-effacing paragon of humility and charm that is Damon Albarn to such a figure?
The opera opened to rave reviews, but posed the pressing question of how well Albarn’s music might stand up when divorced from the opulent staging. Can it succeed without the aid of English surtitles (the lyrics are in Cantonese), aerial marital arts sequences and the perennially diverting sight of lissom Oriental ladies wrapping their ankles around the back of their necks?
The 22-track CD dispenses with the arrangements heard in the theatre in favour of lo-fi electronics. Analogue synthesiser arpeggios, the tick-tock of a primitive drum machine and the ondes Martenot – a 1920s electronic instrument that sounds not unlike a bowed saw – figure heavily, alongside an acrylic instrument invented by Albarn, conductor David Coulter and artist Gavin Turk to recreate the sound of massed car-horns on China’s traffic-choked roads. Unexpectedly, there are moments when divorcing the music from the staging causes it to come alive: it’s easy to overlook how glorious the tune of The Living Sea is when you’re distracted by the simultaneous appearance of a woman hovering above the stage doing scissor-kicks in a starfish costume and oversized sunglasses, a giant prawn pushing a shopping trolley packed with rubber-limbed contortionists twirling parasols, and a man dressed as a monkey in a tracksuit vigorously rubbing his private parts.
You’re struck by how, despite the talk of Albarn composing the music for Monkey using the five-note pentatonic scale found in Chinese folk music, the melody lines are so immediately recognisable as his: they drip with the same kind of languorous melancholy found in the songs he wrote for the Good the Bad and the Queen’s album. More importantly, it never slips into ah-so parody. You may be very aware of who wrote the music, but you never feel as if you’re listening to Blur in black bean sauce: one of Albarn’s more remarkable tricks, also demonstrated on 2002’s Mali Music album, is his ability to somehow impress himself on world music in an unassuming fashion. The result is often dazzling, as on Heavenly Peach Banquet, a sumptuous cocktail of echoing electronics, harp, fluttering female vocals and sly musical quotations from Minnie Ripperton’s Lovin’ You – as magical a piece of pop music as you’re ever likely to hear.
There are moments when it feels as if something has been lost in translation. On stage, Confessions of a Pig worked because the staccato, grunted vocals of Pigsy lamenting his past misbehaviour fitted perfectly with the movements of the actor who played him, suggesting a figure so self-indulgent and overweight that he was barely capable of walking and talking at the same time. Here, it just sounds like a bloke grunting.
There’s no getting around the fact that some of this is incidental music. You can go a fair distance without encountering a tune, which is less of a problem when there is something to look at. But even during the occasional longueurs, it’s hard not to marvel at the ambition on display here, hard to think of anyone who would dare attempt something similar, and impossible to imagine someone else pulling it off with more aplomb.