Damon Albarn loves to sing about England. First, he did it through Blur—through the yearning of “For Tomorrow” and the wit of “Parklife.” Then, in the mid-2000s, he gathered some of rock’s finest to make a concept album about the country, aptly titled The Good, The Bad & The Queen. Featuring The Clash’s Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong, and Africa ’70’s Tony Allen, it was both a love letter and a lament, discussing everything from blissful childhoods to war. For a while after the album’s release, the group faded into oblivion as the notoriously busy Albarn got back to other projects, such as his opera and the next Gorillaz album. Now, in the pressing age of Brexit, Albarn has returned to embrace his “stroppy little island” through the power of song once again. With Merrie Land, the previously unnamed group has officially become The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and it’s back with a lot to say.
There was not much talk about Merrie Land before its release. Rumors that the group would release another album had been floating around for a while, but very little information was confirmed. Thus, it seems a bit like the record rose out of the mist. It’s best this way. Unlike Blur or Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen has a beauty that’s subtle, understated. There are no goofy Britpop romps or Snoop Dogg features here; you have to listen closely to fully appreciate the music, and when you do, you’ll be rewarded by both the delicate language and the detail in the production.
The record very much feels like a boat ride you would find at some sort of dark amusement park—perhaps Dismaland, Banksy’s 2015 art installation. In the introduction, listeners are sent off with a quotation from The Canterbury Tales, reminding them that they are about to hear several chapters in a much larger story. Then it’s onto the title track, where Albarn and Co. immediately lay their souls bare. A carnival-esque melody repeats itself over the cinematic sound of strings as Albarn sings without concern for rhyme—just ruminating into the grey sky. The topic is Brexit, but with images like “We cheer on the clowns as they roll into town/But their faces look tired and sad to me/And carry the terrible things they’ve seen,” the lyrics come across as purposeful poetry rather than an angry political rant—especially given the way Albarn’s voice wanes in and out, caught in emotion. As in the other songs on the album, there are some touches of The Clash to be noted here. The punk rockers often included ad-libs in their songs, such as the “Split!” in “Should I Stay or Should I Go” and the “Don’t push us when we’re hot!” in “Armagideon Time”; TGTB&TQ evokes their ghost by including audio of Damon stammering the absurd phrase “Mobilised hooters” and laughing. Not only is this the best song on Merrie Land; it’s one of Albarn’s best songs in recent years.
The ethos of “Merrie Land” stays strong throughout the remainder of the album. Second single “Gun to the Head” is skillfully eerie; the way the chorus bounces against militant percussion and falsely jolly horns is intriguing. “The Great Fire” is a stunner, as well. The countless layers of instrumentation, blending music hall and dub influences, create a sense of suspense that’s hard to shake. The lack of percussion is ominously obvious at the beginning; when it arrives with a boom, the moment is striking. “Lady Boston” is notable for the story behind its production: it was recorded in Penrhyn Castle, and the words chanted by a choir at the end are “Dwi wrth dy gefn,” Welsh for “I’ve got your back.” “The Truce of Twilight” is probably the album’s catchiest track—the standout horns and bass give it a feel that’s very reminiscent of Plastic Beach. Of course, these are only some of the highlights; clearly, every song was crafted with care.
Some of the last words we hear in the last track of Merrie Land, “The Poison Tree,” are “It’s really sad/It’s really sad.” This is an apt descriptor of the record—by its very nature as social commentary, it’s quite gloomy. However, it’s gloom with heart, gloom with a mission, and for that reason, it’s worth listening to. When the Merrie Land ride is over—when your boat slides out of the tunnel and up to the dock—your memories of it will linger with you, even when you step up to the next attraction.