Twelve years after the Good, the Bad & the Queen first appeared, the band returned with Merrie Land in late 2018, an album written and recorded in a reflection on England and Englishness following the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016. Damon Albarn, with Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, and Verve guitarist Simon Tong, craft a dreary calm and downcast demeanor on Merrie Land and achieve no indication of diminishing output quality despite the album released barely six months from the Gorillaz’ The Now Now, itself only 14 months after Gorillaz’ Humanz. Where those two records highlighted different levels of presence for Albarn, with the Good, the Bad & the Queen, his vocals and lyrics are precisely in sync with Allen’s, Simonon’s, and Tong’s instrumentation and arrangement driving the mood and atmosphere on Merrie Land.
Nostalgia is smeared across the tracks and concept on Merrie Land: an album at once documenting life in England in the wake of Brexit while lamenting the uncertainty and unknown realities faced by the English people as the nation barrels toward leaving the EU this Spring. Albarn’s lyrics hauntingly depict the loneliness he’s witnessed in English life and presumed isolation once Brexit is fulfilled. The album has been described as an update on Blur’s Parklife, albeit in dark tones and lamentations instead of the brash swagger and optimism performed by a younger Albarn. The nostalgia for a lost sense of England arrives immediately with the album’s introduction and the title track. A quote from the 1944 film A Canterbury Tale, itself a romanticized vision of England during World War II – i.e. when England fought to save Europe – leads into “Merrie Land”: “And especially, from every shire’s end of England, the holy blissful martyr for to seek. That them had helped them when that they were weak…”
“Merrie Land” is about Brexit directly, plotting out the possible outcomes and commenting on the necessary realities and hardships that will face the English once departure from the EU is completed. Albarn’s lyrics move from wistful imagery of an idealized “Merrie England” of paintings and politicized progress to pleas for the listener as he details stark alternatives of pollution and border checks. The following track, “Gun to the Head”, moves into the alternatives directly and violently, with warnings against trespassers and dreary realizations of decline and disunity. The two tracks led the promotion singles ahead of Merrie Land, illustrating the album’s reflections and focus on Brexit, but with the remainder of the album, neither fits in directly with the following tracks.
The album feels unnaturally front heavy and when the organ re-enters on “Nineteen Seventeen”, there is a definite need for recalibration and reignition. This song presents a comparison with the impact and destruction caused by the World Wars in Europe with the modern state of England. The connection between England and France are tight in “Nineteen Seventeen”, with the effects and actions taken in World War I unaccounted for a forgotten as England barrels toward Brexit. A gloom flows in with “The Great Fire” and Albarn sings of what is being lost as England changes around its inhabitants, or the reality of England’s appearance is increasingly revealed as its inhabitants confront decisions made and the impacts carried. “Lady Boston”, appearing as a sweet tune midway through the album was influenced by a painting in Penrhyn Castle, in Wales, yet hides the disagreement regarding England now and England in Brexit, and laments the turn of events
With these three tracks and the remainder of Merrie Land, instrumentation, musicianship, and the production and mixing stand out as important strengths grounding and propelling the album. The directness of the first two tracks is less pronounced as the album progresses, and tracks like “Drifters & Trawlers” remain melancholy, but with tighter performances and lyrics that relate better to day-to-day activities more so than the promoted reflections on Brexit. However, “The Truce of the Twilight” returns to documenting the predicted changes in England with departure from the EU completed, opening with “Enjoy it while it lasts because soon it will be different …” It’s a different kind of track from the opening pair though, with sweeter nostalgia and softer pleading before closing with a back and forth refrain questioning what has happened while acknowledging changes.
Brexit and nostalgia dominate Merrie Land, particularly through Albarn’s lyrics and moody deliveries. On “Ribbons” and “The Last Man to Leave” he sings sweeter and harsher tunes respectively about the connections England holds with Scotland and Wales being the only kept direct relationships upon Brexit, and then admits his dislike of Brexit and yearning to see England stay in the EU. He is effectively “the Last Man to Leave” the EU with his fellow 48% of the voting population. The album closes with “The Poison Tree”, perhaps the best track on Merrie Land and one full of hope and despair in Albarn’s lyrics, and the strongest musical performance by the band on the album.
Merrie Land evokes a perfect reflection of Brexit by Damon Albarn, connecting to his long career from Blur through Gorillaz and into the Good, the Bad & the Queen. Yet, the album’s success is not through him singly, rather the collaboration gained with the other members of this supergroup. The music performed by Allen, Simonon, and Tong, holds a strong presence on the album, necessarily complementing Albarn’s lyrics while simultaneously crafting a modern folk sensibility. Allen’s drums are ever-present but occasionally subdued to emphasize organ, guitar, and bass performances. Simonon’s bass and Tong’s guitar serve to give Albarn’s organs, pianos, mellotrons, and other keyboard instruments grounding when the lyrics stray to angry or dejected. The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s return is equally worth celebrating, even if the lyrics root Merrie Land very much in a 2018 mindset, the stylistic and genre contributions to British folk and nostalgic musicality are immense and take the reflections on Brexit into Albarn’s intended reflections of England and Englishness.