Damon Albarn's new project crackles with life and melody throughout. It might be as grubby and mysterious as the London it evokes, but it's also as animated and vibrant as the streets around Portobello Market it comes from.
If you cast your mind back to 1995, it's fair to say that you could have got long odds on the prospect of Blur's chirpy, slightly annoying, mockney frontman Damon Albarn occupying a position in 2007 as something of a renaissance man of British music. But, whilst one-time sworn enemies Liam and Noel seem to have turned into a post millennial version of Slade, without the great tunes -- and are happy to just pop up every few years with some more 'outrageous' interviews and another set of songs almost tragic in their fading brilliance -- Albarn has grown into one of this century's most engaging pop musicians. His cartoon side project Gorillaz has mutated from scratchy beginnings into a pop monster. Tellingly, 2005's Demon Days, a deliciously dark pop album that sounded both progressive and catchy as hell, was one of the year's most memorable releases.
Some five years in the making, The Good, the Bad & the Queen sees Albarn again teaming up with producer of the moment Brian "Dangermouse" Burton, and assembling a 'supergroup' featuring ex-Clash bass hero Paul Simonon, incomparable Afrobeat pioneer and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, and Albarn's recent side-man Simon Tong (The Verve, Gorillaz). Even more so than the last Gorillaz album and the interesting but patchy Mali Music, The Good, the Bad & the Queen is a record swathed in musicality and soul -- and is unquestionably the most assured and coherent project Albarn has ever been involved with.
Threads of all Albarn's previous musical incarnations run through the deep grooves of The Good, the Bad & the Queen, as the songs unfold fluidly, slowly revealing their reference points. The music here is touched by the colours of old English music hall, wartime laments, and Britpop, as well as subtle shades of reggae, dub, and Afrobeat -- belying the notion that The Good, the Bad & the Queen is a Damon Albarn solo venture. Indeed, far from the clunky precedent set by most 'supergroups', the musicians in The Good, the Bad & the Queen seem to play off each other with an innate awareness of the overall dubby groove.
The first track, "History Song", sets a purposeful tone that informs everything that follows, opening with a skeletal acoustic guitar figure before Simonon drops a reeling bass riff, and a fuggy organ and dancing percussion sets in. Both of the songs that come next, are brilliantly off-kilter pop tunes. Familiar elements like the rudimentary upright piano used on "80's Life" or the mournful chorus of "Northern Whale" are warped just enough to suggest you're listening to something new, and the effect is effortlessly enthralling. "Kingdom of Doom" is a fitting moniker for a song that opens with the lines: "Friday night/ In the kingdom of doom/ Ravens fly/ Across the moon". As ominous as the crashes of thunder and synth shrieks that hover over the song are, they are set to one of Albarn's most liltingly romantic melodies.
Almost everything here, though, is towered over by the magnificent "Herculean", a symphonic dub soundscape that sounds at once weary and resigned, and beautifully defiant. Albarn sings: "It's bigger than you/ And the welfare state/ And we keep singing/ It's not too late" as Tony Allen's drums skitter, and washes of melody and ghostly voices carry the song to its end. Given the genius of Allen's contribution, it's perhaps baffling that he is used so sparingly throughout The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Especially to ears trained on Western rock music, his drumming remains a delight, as his beats fizz away, colouring the songs in glorious, unexpected textures.
Elsewhere, "Behind the Sun" is a wonderfully weird, cracked soul ballad that finds Albarn vocally at his most stretched and touching, and "The Bunting Song", too, is built around a lovely melody that shines from the foggy production. "Three Changes" is an oppressive, broken down funfair, dub jam that seems to hold a dirty mirror up to the ugliest scenes of British life -- with Albarn singing "Give us sordid details/ Tie them to the main sail/ The drum and gun/ Of estatedom/ Very near". It's as if the vacuous, brash lives and tabloid culture that fascinated him a decade ago on Parklife now repulse him. The record closes with the title track, a raucous groove, heavily in debt to Allen's kinetic Afrobeat rhythms, which sends the album spiralling towards a thrilling conclusion.
For all the talk that this record was supposed to be an anti-Iraq concept album, its stories seem to stretch much further back than that. The impending sense of threat and mourning that stalks London in 2006 is captured in the record's murky production and rhythms of the sounds -- but despite Albarn's own views -- reference to the war is never explicit enough to confine the songs to these specific, dark times. The project as a whole has the feel of an almost gothic pop album -- a brooding fable set in a post-war London cloaked in fear, resigned panic, and barely hidden despair.
But here's the thing,:The Good, the Bad & the Queen positively crackles with life and melody throughout. It might be as grubby and mysterious as the London it evokes, but it's also as animated and vibrant as the streets around Portobello Market. Perhaps the biggest compliment you can give to The Good, the Bad & the Queen is that the album is bigger than the sum of its iconoclastic parts. Musically, it's a bold, startling record that confounds any expectations or preconceptions of its creator -- and as something deeper, the half remembered pictures that float through the songs' murky waters are a defiant and despairing comment on where the mixed up island of Britain has arrived at in 2007.