The Good, The Bad & The Queen – ‘Merrie Land’ album

Photo credit: Pennie Smith

The Good, The Bad & The Queen (Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong) 11 years after the release of their self-titled debut album to ask what it means to be British in a time of great division and uncertainty – due to the foolish decisions made by those in power – with ‘Merrie Land’.

The album opens with an olde-time public service announcement that segues into the title track with its nursery rhyme-style lowery organ played by Damon as he laments people leaving (and we all know how that word has taken on a far nastier tone in recent people): ‘If you are leaving, can you please say goodbye’. Damon then goes on to reveal his love of the country over and over again but just can’t hide the sadness of what is happening due to ‘graceless’ people: ‘I’ll drive in the early hours down to the sea. I’ll stand on the beach where the storms amplify. All the voices I care for and the ghosts I hold sacred in this alignment that lasts for a day’.

‘Gun to the Head’ features additional vocals by producer Tony Visconti and is inspired by Damon’s travels around the country, fitting in references to Banbury and great British institutions including ‘the narcotics sold in Boots’. The  loose drums and film score-style finish capture the quintessential nature of The Kinks ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, especially in the line ‘we don’t care because we’re animal lovers’. This charm becomes something altogether more eerie with the experimental string arrangements and jazz-style drumming of ‘Nineteen Seventeen’ perfectly capturing the uncertainty both inside Damon’s head and of those who have compassion and kindness. It’s very short and the spaced-out sound also contains elements of David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’.

‘Lady Boston’ is the album’s centrepiece with the poetic words (‘She looks from the shaows out through the stained colours of old glass. The sorrows of slate and sugar cane are hers’) being given extra heft by the vocal stylings of the male voice choir of Cor Y Penrhyn Bethesda featuring in the background. This song will give you goosebumps as first Damon asks ‘Where do I go now? Where will you carry me? and when the choir bring it to a close in their native language. Although the lyrics are tinged with sadness and regret, the music and vocals offer a true celebration of our differences and how they make us a true United Kingdom.

There’s a more deflated tone on ‘Drifters & Trawlers’ as Damon repeats how ‘I’ve done enough today’ and then demands ‘Throw away your fears, throw away the nets and throw away the past’ before then examining how he – and we – can make a more positive impace in the future. Oh, and there’s a spoken-word sample of Keith Floyd discussing hangovers thrown in for good measure. The menacing mixture of bass, bassoon and brass highlight the start of ‘The Truce of Twilight’ as Damon has a back-and-forth discussion with his bandmates about nosy neighbours and trying to make sense of ‘new age cultism’: ‘Go raise your idols, pull them out the marshes. Go give them sanctuary, put them in your new builds because everything is now a live stream, the noise is rising. Curtain twitchers can take out their sunscreen’; ‘Look what we’ve become… Look what we have done’. It feels like an admission that it is kind of our fault we are in this mess, even if it’s not entirely of our own making.

‘Ribbons’ has a timeless feel with fine strings and subtle acoustic strums backing up  introspective lyrical comparisons that bring to mind Villagers and Paul Simon: ‘I am the maypole dancing with the sun’; ‘I am the last king standing on the hill’; ‘I am a murder all falling out the sky’; ‘I am the dark wood, the river and the blood, I am the lover lost’. Damon frantically rallies (in spoken word) about the despicable way our government is treating long-term British residents on ‘The Last Man to Leave’: ‘The houses of joy and disappointment of the Windrush. Street sweepers leave your music on the other side of the pavement because it sounds better over there. We don’t want you anymore. We like the bed that we’ve made to lie in’. There’s a twisted carnival sound in the music that just adds to the fury and absurdity and you can’t help but hear the desperation in Damon’s plea to those who have the authority to make a difference in the closing question: ‘What will you do?’

The closing ‘The Poison Tree’ brings to mind Gorillaz’ ‘On Melancholy Hill’ with its dreamy aura and acts like a farewell to our greeen and pleasant land: ‘I’ll set you free to find your promised land. If you’re leaving me it’s really sad. It’s really sad’ and ‘Our love is laying on a fallow field’. The Good, The Bad & The Queen have provided a vital and refreshing examination of Britain and its place in the world in this touching an fond celebration of our culture – although it’s tinged with understandable sadness and frustration.

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