The Lowdown: The timing for the release of the second album by The Good, the Bad & the Queen, the humble supergroup led by Damon Albarn, couldn’t be more perfect. It arrives just as news breaks that the UK and EU have agreed to draft terms of a Brexit agreement and just as the band’s country of origin wraps up commemorations for the centennial of World War I. Both major events — and the past 100 years of British history for that matter — haunt this short, sharp new collection, with Albarn and co. reckoning with the ghosts of the past and the country’s unsure future.
The Good: Merrie Land is the rare maximalist album that doesn’t feel over the top. A string section pops up throughout, as does a bit of brass band bleat. The Côr y Penrhyn Choir from Wales fleshes out “Lady Boston”. And there’s a lushness that Albarn and producer Tony Visconti bring to these tracks — songs that mesh together the Music Hall and pure-pop past of England with the steady injection of music from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America brought over by its immigrant population — that is enveloping and welcoming. What keeps the music from overwhelming is the light touch that everyone brought to the studio. Tony Allen and Paul Simonon, the group’s rhythm section, let negative space into their playing in the manner of PiL’s Metal Box. There’s just enough propulsion to push the songs forward but not enough to rattle the insistent calm at the heart of the album.
With he and guitarist Simon Tong flitting around the edges musically, Albarn becomes the focal point, stuck as he is in a whirlwind of emotions and images stirred up by the political and social unease running through the “manicured lawns of England/ barricaded in the ’50s,” as he sings on “Last Man to Leave”. Primarily, Albarn views Brexit through the lens of a romantic breakup on songs like the swaying album closer “The Poison Tree” and the see-sawing title track, which still feature some sharp barbs for the Boris Johnsons and DJTs of the world: “We cheer on the clowns as they roll into town/ But their faces look tired and sad to me.”
The Bad: According to an interview with MOJO on the making of Merrie Land, Albarn said he took inspiration from the speak-singing, a stream-of-consciousness style of lyric writing that one of his Gorillaz collaborators, Lou Reed, often used. Conceptually, that makes perfect sense considering the sheer amount of images and ideas that Albarn wanted to pack into each song. But there are also clear and direct choruses that stick their claws in and stick with you after the needle hits the run-out groove on Side B. It works perfectly as an album-length mood piece; just don’t try to turn any of these tunes into singles.
The Verdict: Merrie Land may not be the crucial text needed to stop the foolhardy decision by the British government to pull the country out of the European Union, but it does work as a bulwark against the cherry-picking, playlist-happy listening habits of the modern music fan. It works best as a complete dose of bitter medicine; a groove-happy message of fear, love, and measured hope.
Essential Tracks: “Merrie Land”, “Drifters and Trawlers”, and “The Poison Tree”