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The Good, the Bad & the Queen - Merrie Land Music Album Reviews

On its first album in 11 years, the Damon Albarn-fronted supergroup tackles Brexit head on. In his “Anglo-Saxistentialist” reckoning, false nostalgia imperils a true vision of British identity.

Damon Albarn has been here before: examining the state of his nation from a place of great ambivalence. He’s been tangled in the Union Jack since his days at the helm of Blur, when he laced chart-topping pop with serrated critiques of British culture. In the decades since, the definition of that culture has become increasingly contested—particularly in the debates around Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU. Shaken and spurred by the Brexit referendum, Albarn’s supergroup the Good, the Bad & the Queen—also including the Clash bassist Paul Simonon, the Verve’s Simon Tong, and legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen—came back together after 11 years to make Merrie Land, a concept album about what it means to be British.

For Albarn, it’s part of a lifelong investigation into the nature of Englishness, or what he has called “Anglo-Saxistentialist.” In a recent interview, he referred to Merrie Land as “the next installment of [Blur’s] Parklife.” If the world of Parklife was rendered in crisp, saturated colors, Merrie Land is drab and strewn with debris. Albarn guides us through its greying sites, pointing out ruins of English identity along the way. “If you are leaving/Please still say goodbye,” he sings atop lullaby organ in the title track; “Can you leave me my Silver Jubilee mug, my old flag?” These obsolete symbols are typical of the album’s tarnished menagerie—evocative, Albarn says, of a “nostalgic, sentimental vision of how England used to be,” even if it “never really existed.”

This kind of nostalgic residue is smeared all over Merrie Land, which is shot through with sounds and images that feel haunted by age and irrelevancy. On “Gun to the Head,” belches of brass suggest the ghost of the royal marching band; on “Nineteen Seventeen” Albarn shows us curled, faded snapshots of “Pylons, rapeseed fields/Powdered skies and trees alone/Thousands of white crosses in a cemetery,” captured from a train leaving “a place we can’t remain close to anymore.” “My heart is heavy,” he sings, “because it looks just like my home.” The bloom of strings and pulsing Mellotron suggest Parklife’s “To the End,” though the magnitude of this ending feels far greater.

Merrie Land owes as much to Britain’s musical traditions as it does to its relics and geography; the first half of the album offers an absurdist vaudeville romp akin to the Kinks and Sgt. Pepper’s, whereas the late-album cut “The Truce of Twilight” touts a walloping bassline that recalls the Clash’s dreary “The Guns of Brixton.” “Lady Boston,” one of the record’s sparser tracks, is built upon ghostly layers of regal noise: Battle snares roll softly, and the wails of a Welsh choir are tempered as if wrapped in gauze.

While the Good, the Bad & the Queen are skilled at providing a wide breadth of styles here—from the woozy, carnivalesque organ of “The Last Man to Leave” to “The Truce of Twilight”’s militaristic chants—they especially succeed at conveying a crumbling and isolated Britain. In a passage from the title track, Albarn closes in on that isolation, to claustrophobic effect: “So rebuild the railways/Firm up all the roads,” he sings. “No one is leaving now this is your home.” Albarn’s plainspoken phrases hover above the mix, lending a blunt edge to the song’s loping circuit of strings and woodwinds. Simonon’s trudging bassline and Allen’s sparse snares imbue his words with an oppressive weight: In Merrie Land, national identity is not a promise but a trap—an estrangement from one’s own true past and the collective history that builds a country.

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