THe Good, THe bAd ANd THe QueeN Merrie land
Reflections on a radically changed nation, 11 years on. By Sharon O’Connell
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