I don’t know how he does it, but Damon Albarn has once again managed to sound like Damon Albarn, but almost like nothing he’s done before. After months of publicly courting Graham Coxon’s return to the Blur fold, Albarn took his music in a decidedly different direction. The Good, the Bad and the Queen is yet another `supergroup’ situation for Albarn, one that wasn’t quite as engineered as Gorillaz, yet yielding just as much entertainment. The talk revolving around GBQ will mostly concern the lineup, as well it should. Besides the songwriting talent and signature breathy accented vocals of Albarn, you have the guitar work of Simon Tong, formerly of the Verve and most recently contributing to the Gorillaz. On top of that, there’s Nigerian drummer Tony Allen, formerly the percussionist and music director for Fela Kuti. At the producer’s desk is the man who found brilliance in shades of grey, Danger Mouse. As if that wasn’t enough, then comes the snazziest dresser in rock and roll, the low end of one of the world’s best punk bands and the icon gracing the cover of London Calling, Paul Simonon of the Clash.
The rest of the talk about this band will be concerned with Albarn’s take on modern day London, a topic he hasn’t fully delved into since Blur’s Parklife, although this album is somewhat the antithesis of that one, and then there’s the quality of the music itself. You can use GBQ’s own words to herald the oncoming of this star-studded get-together, “If you don’t know it now, then you will do.” That line comes from the opening track, “History Song,” a track whose bassline more than resembles one of Simenon’s crowning achievements, the song he wrote and sang for the Clash, “Guns of Brixton.” “80’s Life” pairs up three different decades for a stunning combination, a song that sounds like the doo-wop ’50s, a title that suggests the `me’ decade, and lyrics that could also be relevant in today’s society, “I don’t want to live in a war that’s got no end in our time.” The chorus of “Northern Whale,” which discusses `England’s tears,’ has a chorus that somewhat resembles a famous English song that also discusses crying, the Stones’ “As Tears Go By,” but the studio flourishes throughout the song definitely place it in the modern day.
One of the first songs to really blow me away, one that is absolutely finding a place on my iPod’s playlist, is “Kingdom of Doom,” the second single from the album. That slow burning dub track is quickly followed by another highlight, the first single, “Herculean.” Each holds their fair share of fine lyric writing including “Drink all day cause the country is at war, soon you’ll be falling off the palace wall” from the first song, and “It all gets better when life is straight, It’s bigger than you and the welfare state” from the latter. “Behind the Sun” throbs like a song by Portishead or Massive Attack with a chorus straight out of the ’60s. As the songs roll by, it must be noticed that there is a melancholy tinge to everything. Albarn taps into the reggae and ska that influenced Simonon, that dark spooky stuff, then paints over it his own apocalyptic vision of England, the same that can be found on the last Gorillaz album, albeit without the cartoons and rapping. Definitely absent from this record is the exuberant poppy feel of Blur, and also the more street savvy spirit of Gorillaz. Rather than getting out there and connecting with the people the way those bands did, this seems like Albarn in his room, in a corner, wrapped up in the fetal position, afraid of what is to come in his home country.
“Nature Springs” and its Radiohead-like electronic touches combining with the angelic backup vocals akin to 13-era songs like “Tender” is another fine track that can easily haunt the soul. Simonon’s bass never sounded as simple and sweet as it does on “A Soldier’s Tale,” a song that alternately has you listening for the low end, then the tinny guitar, then the whistling, which hasn’t sounded so good since Billy Joel’s “The Entertainer.” In fact, Simonon’s bass can at times sound like that in Bob Marley’s legendary “Stir It Up.” In the reggae-infused “Three Changes,” Albarn calls England “a stroppy little island of mixed up people.” It’s probably the closest thing to a Blur / Gorillaz mash-up on the record, as if Albarn were saying in his lyrics and menacing music that modern life is still rubbish.
The verses of “Green Fields” will have you wondering why so many fans have picked this one as their favorite from the album already, that is until you hear the kinetic energy of the chorus, backed by Albarn’s circus keyboards and Tong’s acoustic guitar wizardry. The title track closes out this debut record; one that I hope has many antecedents. It was quickly one of my favorites with a big build-up send off at the end full of buzzing guitars, throbbing bass and hyper keys, but it is the classical piano intro, like something from either Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, that grabbed my attention. Albarn writes himself onto a level with lyricists like Bowie and Costello with lines that appear in the final verse, “Don’t kick the crack heads of the green / They’re a political party / And the kids are never going to be tired / Cause everything has so slightly come.”
One would guess that Albarn has an obsession with Clint Eastwood. First, he names a song after the spaghetti western actor. Then, on the follow-up album, he names a song “Dirty Harry.” This album’s obvious touchstone is one of Clint’s most famous, but oddly there’s nothing else to reference but the titles. Instead, it’s as if Brian Wilson and Ray Davies took a busman’s holiday to Jamaica and found out the world was ending. Yes, the Good, the Bad and the Queen is the house band for the apocalypse, but not the one where zombies take over and there’s fire and damnation everywhere. The house band there would have to be Slayer or Sepultura. No, this apocalypse will be a quiet and sad one, the kind where there is simply a pervading silence over everything, and unseen and unnamed dangers lurk around every corner. Perhaps Albarn had been listening to Morrissey, deciding to answer his famous question, “Oh, has the world changed or have I changed?” Life is very long when you’re lonely…