There’s a lengthy tome waiting to be written about the seeming indefatigability of Damon Albarn’s quest for melody. In particular, scrutiny should be applied to his knack for albums which slow-burn their way into listeners’ affections. ‘Merrie Land’, the third studio album he has released in eighteen months, is a tense, sometimes disorientating listen, but early plays are typically inconclusive. Given time, the remarkably consistent craft shines through and The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s recasting of the world of ‘Parklife’ under a Brexit cloud asserts itself.
Kicking off with a quotation from The General Prologue of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ hints at some of the travels to follow, decorated with woozy funfair chimes and a piano in need of a tune up. The evocative depiction of London that dominated the band’s debut is replaced by reflections from a modern pilgrimage around a country battered, bruised and divided by a political maelstrom, undertaken by Albarn in an attempt to make amends for being blasé about the referendum. While anger occasionally rises to the surface, not least in the closing stages of the title track where working class association with the Tories is challenged, the prevailing feeling is of sadness at what might be lost in a splintering of identity.
‘The Truce Of Twilight’ has the dubby shuffle of old, prowling around via Paul Simonon’s signature bass sound and referencing a nightmarish figure from Dorset folklore that hints at English heritage, faded behind a soundbite nationalism. ‘Gun To The Head’ is the out and out pop smash and it sounds like calling in for a middle-aged catch up with the ‘End Of A Century’ folk. ‘The Last Man To Leave’ slowly unravels, a demented ache at its core while Tony Allen’s somewhat restrained role on their first album is replaced with a loose, emphatically playful presence across these ten songs.
The most delicate pieces here are ‘Ribbons’ and ‘The Poison Tree’. The former feels like a melancholic offshoot from 2014 solo album, ‘Everyday Robots’, while the latter is a swooning and wistful conclusion, lamenting the power of hateful rhetoric on a romanticised land that has rarely been far from Albarn’s songs. His tendency to present his vocals in different ways depending on which project he’s pursuing makes the song’s demurely defeated croon a deeply affecting statement.
Most stirring is ‘Lady Boston’, which sits at the midpoint of ‘Merrie Land’ and hails from Penrhyn Castle near Bangor. Its concluding refrain of “Dwi wrth dy gefn”, sung by Penrhyn’s own male voice choir, is Welsh for ‘I’ve got your back’. It’s a rousing reminder of the power of community from an occasional quartet that offers a compelling advert for collaboration. We may not hear from them often, but The Good, The Bad & The Queen are a rare treat and an unlikely, unusual and, at times, unsettling proposition. Albarn on Britain is a proven formula, but Simonon, Allen and Simon Tong combine to craft curious twenty-first century folk about curious twenty-first century folk.
Words: Gareth James
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