The Good, the Bad & the Queen: Merrie Land review – almost-anthems for England’s dreaming

Damon Albarn’s eclectic supergroup confront national myths on an ambitious album of Brexit-era Anglicana

“This is not rhetoric, it comes from my heart,” sings Damon Albarn on the title track of this latest album by the Good, the Bad & the Queen. Nearly 12 years on from their self-titled debut – an atmospheric ode to west London that united Clash bassist Paul Simonon with Nigerian funk drummer Tony Allen – fellow traveller of Fela Kuti – and guitarist Simon Tong, most notably of the Verve – Albarn’s haunted supergroup have returned, like a more urbane, slightly more louche version of King Arthur and his knights, to an imperilled country.

What exactly is that country, though? “Are we green, are we pleasant?” wonders Albarn bitterly, “We are not either of those, father / We are a shaking wreck where nothing grows / Lost in the sky-coloured oils of Merrie Land.” It’s a vision of Britain that crosses a Turner painting with Banksy’s Dismaland theme park.

In the music, there’s plenty of what you might term “Anglicana”: the wheeze of fairgrounds, the birdsong of music hall piano and the dissipated, three-legged lurch of folk, undercut by the rumbling resonance of Simonon’s post-Windrush bass-playing.

Gun to the Head, one of two tracks released online, recalls an inquiry into Englishness being played by Madness in medieval costume. Queasy irresolution is everywhere, on purpose. Tony Visconti is the producer tasked with inserting space into the arrangements, of overlaying Albarn’s piano-playing with a faint touch of David Bowie here and there.

In the lyrics, meanwhile, Albarn is appalled at how we have got to where we are now: an “Anglo-Saxostentialist crisis”, as he has called it in interviews. How can the good, decent burghers of England have thrown their lot in with Etonian Brexit-mongers to leave a confederation dedicated to end wars between neighbours, and usher in an era of bleached chicken? Or as Albarn puts it: “They are graceless and you shouldn’t be with them / Because they are all disconnected and raised up in mansions.”

Watch the video for Merrie Land by the Good, the Bad & the Queen.

If the impassioned invective of Merrie Land doesn’t exactly read like exquisite poetry on the page, Albarn has explained that, like Lou Reed, he often wrote these lyrics as stream-of-consciousness prose. Even if his latterday output has gestured, rather than shouted – playing with an orchestra of Syrian musicians, getting funky with Gorillaz, or proffering elliptical melancholy on his solo albums – Albarn is not here to mince words.

It follows that the emotional temperature here is righteous, the sorrowful exasperation writ large across 11 tracks. From its title on, though, Merrie Land is an engrossing, if frustrating record, whose thrust is grandiloquent and noble, sad and nuanced, but whose execution does become mired in some churned-up turf, metres (it’ll be yards again soon enough) short of glory.

Conceived as a kind of pilgrim’s progress around the UK, taking in Blackpool and Banbury, Penrhyn and ancient Dorset, Albarn has put together a series of moodboards that contrast myth with reality, unfurling vignettes out of time and impressionistic collages of ills.

Some of these are full of inspired juxtapositions and ghostly gravitas. Assured and genuinely transporting, the magnificent The Great Fire contrasts Tony Allen’s ticklish rattle with Albarn singing, in an almost Brechtian fugue state, of “the deep dead laughter of the yellow stars”, and “sticky brown Chinese, coke and a dummy”.

Also seductive, if that’s the right word, is The Last Man to Leave, a bleak operetta whose oblique outpourings and sound effects carry you along. Nestled within is more candour, and even self-flagellation. “I’m taking it personally,” howls Albarn, “ I’ve got to rewrite/ The story that they flaunted around and hoicked us all/ I was just getting on with my business.” Translation: Brexit caught Albarn off-guard as he juggled projects. You want to hug him and tell him it’s really not his fault: we know who the villains are.

When Merrie Land is this good, it’s a tragic breakup album starring two hunks of land and some anguished narrators (as on the album-closer The Poison Tree). It is the grownup companion to Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, strewn with some of the arcane paraphernalia Albarn picked up researching the magical Dr Dee, the subject of Albarn’s 2011 opera. There are references to Blackpool pubs, and the Horned Ooser, a mysterious Dorset bogeyman.

When it is less convincing, Merrie Land often has the air of an attempt to rewrite Dorset native PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake with added dubby basslines, but a little less of what Dylan called “that thin, wild mercury sound”. Nineteen Seventeen examines a French war cemetery. For all Albarn’s despair at human folly (“why are we not brought to book?”), the song never quite gels into Harvey’s heroism. (Better is Drifters & Trawlers, whose easy melody and narrow focus on a tired sailor paints a more moving period picture).

There is nowhere near enough Tony Allen, a man made of sensuous movement, restricted here to a kind of discordant jazz. There is a desperate dearth of the “rub-a-dub” that Simonon has dangled so tantalisingly in interviews. The Truce of Twilight is like the Specials playing buzzword bingo (care homes, fly tips); it’s a song saved by the call-and-response interplay of the band, and a generous application of horns.

Watch the video for Gun to the Head by the Good, the Bad & the Queen.

The album’s cover art features a 1950s-style image of a ventriloquist trying to silence his dummy; the dummy recurs in the videos, lending the entire project a cliched aesthetic whose creepiness is knowingly deployed, but overplayed. Just when you’re most of the way through the album, relaxing into the fact that you’ve got this far without mention of a maypole, the cloying Ribbons raises one up.

Mid-album, though, is such sweet sorrow. Lady Boston aches beautifully as it considers the end of an era, the complicatedness of so many things, and a sense of “what now?” The alto recorders are, mercifully, also a little lower in the mix here.

A partial answer, and some honeyed balm, comes in the form of a Welsh choir. And although Merrie Land has its flaws, this son of Colchester is usually right about the important stuff. “Dwi wrth dy gefn, dwi wth dy gefen di,” they sing. “I’m on the back of you,” Albarn translates, meaning: “We’re all in this together.”


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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