Prolific as ever following two Gorillaz albums in the space of a year, the legend that is Damon Albarn has been in the studio with his supergroup that also features Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong and renowned afrobeat drummer Tony Allen. 11 years ago, their self-titled debut album dealt with London in the 21st century and the Iraq War. This time around, The Good, The Bad And The Queen release “a reluctant good-bye letter” as Britain prepares to leave the EU. It’s described as “a series of observations and reflections on Britishness in 2018” and “a beautiful and hopeful paean to the Britain of today, an inclusive Britain, currently in an Anglo-Saxostentialist crisis at the end of a relationship, wondering what might be salvaged.” What we get is a fine concept record from an illustrious group of musicians, and another one to add to Albarn’s catalogue of marvellous albums.
Following a brief snatch of introduction dialogue, haunted fairground vibes and graceful melancholia are very much the order on the opening title track. Legendary producer Tony Visconti immediately proves to be the ideal person to provide the space and clarifying separation of sounds on Merrie Land. Bringing to mind Hunky Dory-era Bowie composing circus soundtracks, the dark jaunty flavour of Gun To The Head also bears echoes of the British music hall elements that occasionally filtered into Blur’s Parklife album. Its swooning, melancholic drift of an outro takes the song to another level.
The sense of confusion is all over Nineteen Seventeen, where dramatic, sorrowful melodies wrap themselves around Allen’s intricate rhythms, and on The Great Fire, sparse guitar and boldening basslines partner a brilliantly emotive vocal from Albarn. It’s as if the settings of Parklife had become derelict ghost towns of the future, and talking of ‘Ghost Town’s, there are indeed hints of that Specials classic. Another highlight arrives with Lady Boston, which finds swooning melancholy and the wondrous weariness of the vocal melting together beautifully, along with more than a few echoes of The Clash’s expansive Sandinista LP. A choral outro and occasional touches of woodwind recall the sounds of Albarn’s 2011 opera Dr Dee. At times, the album hopes for the best and calls for people power to make the best we can out of the current situation. It also imagines and warns against the worst case scenario of a Britain regressing back to Victorian times… a place where Jacob Rees-Mogg is leader perhaps. Nightmarish for sure. As well as its swirling end-of-the-pier flavours, during its more laid back, optimistic spells, Ghost Ship from Blur’s 2015 comeback album The Magic Whip is another song that Merrie Land takes leads from in terms of its soulful and lilting elegance.
Simonon’s bass is in the spotlight again on the dubby Drifters And Trawlers, where playful instrumental moods contrast with the sadness of the lyrics and voice. The awesome centrepiece The Truce Of Twilight is the closest Merrie Land comes to Gorillaz with its inviting synth hook, extra dimensions added by exemplary drum work from Allen, magnificent chord sequences and an edge that comes across as more aggressive than much of the material Albarn has released this decade with his various different projects. The tender Ribbons is a spacious, acoustic, organic beauty which delivers another magically introspective melody, while the disruptive nature of The Last Man To Leave may be off-putting for some listeners, a mixture of spoken word melodramatics and music hall. It’s the album’s most challenging moment, not sitting particularly well within the more accessible moments. It acts mainly as a build up to the incredible finale The Poison Tree, a classic Albarn composition that brings the whole album together beautifully with a helping of twinkling, sad, dreamy funk.
These weird, volatile times are producing some amazing music, and this is very likely to become the record that defines the upheaval of Brexit. Along with the triumphant The Magic Whip, but operating around a completely different concept and musical dynamic, Merrie Land is this decade’s finest example of Damon Albarn’s gift as a great songwriter, again reaffirming his status as one of the all-time great British musicians. Who better to address social divisions and the looming uncertainties and impacts of Brexit?