THe Good, THe bAd ANd THe QueeN Mer­rie land

Re­flec­tions on a rad­i­cally changed na­tion, 11 years on. By Sharon O’Con­nell

UNCUT - - New Albums -

YOU’D be for­given for think­ing that as a well of in­spi­ra­tion, English iden­tity and the state of the na­tion must by now have run dry for Da­mon Al­barn. From the Kinks-y satire of Mod­ern Life Is Rub­bish and Park­life’s cock­ney car­toon­ism, through an op­er­atic bi­og­ra­phy of the El­iz­a­bethan coiner of the term ‘Bri­tan­nia’, Dr Dee, and the an­ti­war song cy­cle about life in the mod­ern cap­i­tal that was The Good, The Bad & The Queen’s de­but, Eng­land (or more specif­i­cally, Lon­don) has for decades been as much his muse as sub­ject mat­ter. For what­ever rea­son, and de­spite his ob­vi­ous in­ter­na­tion­al­ism and Re­mainer sta­tus, Al­barn feels his roots deeply.

Which is why he’s been moved to ex­am­ine them afresh – in a dif­fer­ent so­cio-po­lit­i­cal con­text and with a sharper emo­tional fo­cus – on Mer­rie Land, a fol­low-up al­bum so long over­due, fans must have given up all hope of ever hear­ing from this ‘su­per­group’ again. De­scribed by Al­barn as “an ode to the north of Eng­land”, to which he’s con­nected via both sets of grand­par­ents, it has as its axis Black­pool, where the band rented re­hearsal space in­side a dance hall with a par­tial view of the Vic­to­rian tower. Songs namecheck Starr Gate and the his­toric pub Un­cle Tom’s Cabin, which mark the pa­ram­e­ters of some of the ac­tion, along with North Pier, Tif­fany’s seafront ho­tel and Pre­ston sta­tion. So far, so provin­cially ex­ploita­tive for a mod­ern-pop chron­i­cler from Not­ting Hill, cyn­ics might say. But Al­barn has pre­vi­ous as a sen­si­tive ob­server with a tal­ent for con­nect­ing, and along with road trips to Southend-onSea, north Wales and the World War I ceme­ter­ies of France, his im­pres­sion­is­tic view of Black­pool’s English par­tic­u­lar­ity is part of a very per­sonal, qui­etly de­spair­ing por­trait of a coun­try in cul­tural cri­sis, about to leap off the Brexit cliff and crash onto the rocks of iso­la­tion­ism be­low.

The al­bum is a mix of new ma­te­rial (eg, the ti­tle track) and older songs, some of which Al­barn says have “changed dra­mat­i­cally” (the acous­tic “Rib­bons”), while oth­ers re­quired a lyri­cal re­think in light of po­lit­i­cal events. It’s framed as a breakup let­ter, with all the af­fec­tion and pained puz­zle­ment that im­plies. “This is not rhetoric, it comes from my heart – I love this coun­try,” Al­barn de­clares on the ti­tle track, re­as­sur­ing any doubters who might have for­got­ten his re­cent co-sign­ing of an open let­ter to Theresa May warn­ing of Brexit’s “self-built cul­tural jail”. He’s said his aim was “to try and cre­ate a kalei­do­scopic mo­ment in an imag­i­nary place called Mer­rie Land”, which ex­plains the dream­like qual­ity con­veyed by lyrics that link Boots’ drugs, uni­corns and noisy dogs in one song (“Gun To The Head”), and swal­lows, a sub­ma­chine gun and the sound of Demis Rous­sos on a wa­ter­slide in an­other (“The Truce Of Twi­light”).

The gloomily ro­man­tic, end-of-pier sounds of the Lowrey or­gan – Al­barn’s new toy – dom­i­nate Mer­rie Land, Si­mon Tong’s gui­tar an at­mo­spheric sup­port, and there’s an over­all light­ness of touch that means the songs fade soon af­ter lis­ten­ing. Some­how, this makes them more poignant. And ‘soft’ emo­tions like re­gret and dis­ap­point­ment are in play rather than the anger that might be ex­pected. Al­barn calls out our lead­ers, who are “dis­con­nected and raised up in man­sions”, while re­mind­ing us that we’re all to blame in one way, but that’s about as far as it goes. With Tony Vis­conti in the pro­ducer’s chair, the set opens with a sam­ple from the Pow­ell/Press­burger movie A Can­ter­bury Tale, then ranges over wist­ful fair­ground tunes, pas­toral folk, cheery pop­u­lar song/ mu­sic hall and gen­tle psy­che­delic funk. There are echoes of Dr Dee on the darkly tragi­comic “The Last Man To Leave” and even mid-pe­riod Blur on “Gun To The Head” and the night­mar­ish “The Great Fire”. The De­mon Strings quar­tet adds ex­tra emo­tional tone through­out and the Bethesda Male Voice Choir lends (Welsh-lan­guage) ro­bust­ness to the bal­lad “Lady Bos­ton”, while brass punc­tu­ates the shuf­fle beat with a psy­che­delic glaze on “The Truce Of Twi­light”, which throws back to the band’s de­but.

There’s a fine line be­tween the sin­cerely wist­ful and con­tem­pla­tive and the nos­tal­gic and mo­rose, but Mer­rie Land un­der­stands where the bor­ders are and stays within them. The state it de­picts is both imag­i­nary and recog­nis­ably real – as Al­barn sees it, not so much a case of Eng­land’s dream­ing, as the sad un­fold­ing of an en­gi­neered night­mare.

ye mer­rie few: (l–r) Tony Allen, da­mon Al­barn, si­mon Tong and Paul si­monon

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