After Graham Coxon left Blur in 2003, the Britpop behemoths fizzled out with a whimper. Damon Albarn threw himself into completing the second Gorillaz album, Demon Days. It established Albarn's side project as a gigantic global force that cracked the States without ever really trying. Gorillaz ended up spectacularly outselling Blur. For his next trick, Albarn wrote and recorded an album as The Good, The Bad & The Queen with Paul Simonon of The Clash, Simon Tong of The Verve (Graham Coxon's substitute on Blur's final tour) and the Nigerian maestro of Afrobeat drumming, Tony Allen.
Since then, Blur have reformed twice. They released a respectable if uneven comeback album, The Magic Whip, in 2015. In intervening years, Albarn also somehow found the time to release four albums by Gorillaz, and a brilliant solo album, Everyday Robots, not to mention a plethora of other projects and collaborations. Damon Albarn turned 50 in March and appears more determined than ever to confound expectations. Meanwhile, most of the Britpop class of the 1990s continue to wallow in tacky nostalgia.
It is strange to reflect that when The Good, The Bad & The Queen released their Danger Mouse-produced debut, Tony Blair was still prime minister. In 1997, Albarn had turned down an invite to a reception at 10 Downing Street with the withering putdown: "Enjoy the schmooze, comrade." Noel Gallagher famously did, and a subsequent photograph of the meeting became one of the defining images of the Britpop years. Fast-forward to late 2018, and The Good, The Bad & The Queen return with a prescient paean to Britain entitled Merrie Land, which opens with a 13-second excerpt from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. It is an angry, sad, and beautiful song cycle about a country falling apart at the seams.
Brexit is not exactly a sexy theme. Mick Jagger released a garbled and watery protest song entitled England Lost in 2017, a half-baked and ill-advised collaboration with Skepta. It was so forgettable that even Jagger and Skepta would probably flatly deny it ever existed. On the title track of Merrie Land, Albarn and friends deliver one of the most impeccably crafted singles of the year. "This is not rhetoric," Damon sings wearily. "It comes from my heart. I love this country." Merrie Land then proceeds to take a swipe at disconnected politicians who grew up in mansions and sneer at the populace. It also sadly notes, in a haunting pen picture, "two hundred plastic bags in a whale's stomach".
Tony Visconti has managed to coax a bigger, bolder and better sound out of Albarn, Simonon, Tong and Allen, who crystallise into a supreme quartet on Merrie Land. If a recent appearance on Later . . . with Jools Holland is anything to go by, their subsequent tour should be astonishing. Gun to the Head could almost be an outtake from Parklife, but the subtlety and strangeness of their debut remains as this fab four weave spooky spells, blending vaudevillian music hall, dubby bass, tinkling piano and whimsical progressive folk. Lady Boston, featuring a Welsh choir, is one of the most moving songs Albarn has penned yet.
On this near-perfect second album, Albarn yet again proves to be streets ahead of the pack. We’re fortunate to have him and this cracking band around, as The Good, The Bad & The Queen flip the concept of a supergroup on its head and bring it to a whole new level. Albarn tenderly and passionately mourning for England is quite possibly the best thing to happen since that bloody referendum. Even if there is no future, England’s still dreaming.