The Good, The Bad & The Queen
It’s taken a confused and damaged nation to bring super group The Good, The Bad & The Queen back to the studio. Spurred on by Damon Albarn’s poetic musings, the group have crafted not just their finest record but an album that genuinely relates to the times we live in.
You could almost call it kismet, an aligning of stars if you will that ‘Merrie Land’ is released into the wild on the same week that Britain finally comes to an agreement on a prospective Brexit deal. A deal in principle which has caused more chaos than a conclusion to Britain’s woes. A calamitous political situation that has inspired this second record from British supergroup ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’. Consisting of The Clash bassist Paul Simmon, Verve keyboardist Simon Tong, Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen and spearheaded by lead vocalist as well as curator of many projects and guises such as Blur & Gorillaz, Damon Albarn. Up till now, the project has only released one previous album, their self-titled debut, an astounding eleven years ago.
Now they’ve returned, inspired by Brexit and the nations crave for ‘Anglo-Saxistenatlism' as Albarn fondly calls it. (the desire for wanting our country back yet asking with little knowledge of what that fantasy you crave actually entails.) Damon and company embarked to Blackpool where ‘Merrie Land’ would be formed. While you could argue this is incredibly in-depth and highly political for a music review, to truly appreciate this record and the art Albarn has created, you must understand its origins and how our country’s turmoil has finely crafted this sophomore record. In fairness, the music explains this with much more poetic beauty than I could ever manage.
Title track ‘Merrie Land’ is outstanding, not just an introduction to the record but also the perfect summarization of the message the group is trying to put across. It’s carnival based instrumentals and melody represent the fantastical nature of our country’s situation, a hint perhaps at the circus it has all become. Albarn’s voice is the clearest it has ever been, no Gorillaz vocoders or Blur induced shouts, this is just a pure stream of consciousness, unlike anything he has attempted before. It takes multiple listens to uncover the various narratives and messages within, but the results are deeply enriching. Words that at first may seem nonsensical, upon further inspection reveals their double meanings. Towards the end of the song, Albarn utters his most outright political verse yet;
It's a stark damnation of our government which offers little restraint, and it also happens to be one of my favourite passages this year. ‘Gun To The Head’ is another merry, majestical ode conducted by Albarn and an assortment of wooden flutes which place an image of the Pied Piper leading the country off a cliff’s edge into your head. It juxtaposes both joy and misery perfectly. This carefully crafted mixture of upbeat and sorrow doesn’t last long, however, the rest of the album goes in various, surprising directions.
A Welsh choir and recorders unite alongside Damon’s pleas for a grandiose finale on ‘Lady Boston’, chills will run down your spine as the deep baritone of the choir echoes out “Dwi wrth dy gefn” into your head. This roughly translates to “I’ve got your back”, Albarn is pleading for unison, an open communication between our citizens, a stark contrast to the division the country is emblazoned in. ‘Drifters and Trawlers’ is another instantly catchy folk song as the group once again utilises recorders and flutes to create a magical refrain. A spiritual sequel to Gorillaz’s wondrous ‘On Melancholy Hill’.
‘Truce Of Twilight’ is a call to arms for workers of the nation, it’s thumping beat and trumpets plod slowly along like march, the backing vocals symbolising the chants of a moving, living protest. ’Ribbons’ is a stunning acoustic ballad, a now apparent trademark to any Damon Albarn project. It is an utterly beautiful track, from its vivid imagery and comparison with the maypole to Albarn’s delicate tones. The tracks presence, however, feels far too brief, leaving you wanting more like a fleeting kiss.
The backend of the record embraces the underlying darkness of the album, stripping away the folk instruments and melodies, instead opting to fully embrace Albarn’s role as town crier. ‘Last Man To Leave’ is a powerful monologue in which Albarn’s voice becomes strained, by now he’s almost shouting rather than singing as he cries out about the “disappointments of the Wind-rush” before lamenting “pacing up and down the kitchen” as he unwinds into a maniacal abyss.
The record concludes on ‘The Poison Tree’, appearing like an unexpected epilogue, “I’ll see you in the next life, I’ll set you free” coo’s Albarn on the ethereal final track. The melancholic ballad feels like a final farewell to the England we know, as if the record itself has come full circle. Albarn seemingly coming to terms with the poison that has infected our country.
These past few years have seen Damon Albarn ricochet from one project to the next, this being at my count his fourth album in only three years. Any fear of creative exhaustion or a lack of inspiration though can be clearly dismissed. The Good, The Bad & The Queen are a distinctive group unto themselves. Damon’s poetic verses may propel the record forward but it’s the masterful instrumentation from his fellow band members and incredible production from the flexible Tony Visconti that allow ‘Merrie Land’ to reach its true potential.
All Brexit has seemingly achieved over the past 2 and a half years is create more division. ‘Merrie Land’ however unites the listener with Albarn in his genuine confusion and worries. In an interview with The Guardian, Albarn stated with hindsight, knowing what turmoil the result would send throughout the country, he begrudged not speaking up sooner. Albarn concluded by saying he wanted to “add another voice” into the mix. I’m so glad he’s offered it now because, in the midst of all the chaos and calamity, it’s a genuine relief to see at least one beautiful piece of art arise from the rubble.