The Good, The Bad and The Queen – Merrie Land (Warner Music)

The Good, The Bad and The Queen – Merrie Land (Warner Music)


Would it be uncharitable of me to begin this review by stating my opinion that Britpop is partly to blame for the shit-show of corruption, incompetence and lies that is Brexit?  That all those self-regarding white kids forming bands and trying to reinvent The Kinks laid the emotional and cultural ground for all those emotional appeals to an idea of England that never existed, enabling the Conservative party to turn an internal split into an act of national self-harm?  And is it a coincidence that I first heard the risible cliche of ‘an idea of England that never existed’ in the context of arch-racist Morrissey (you’re dead to me Steven) draping himself in the Union Jack and getting bottled off-stage by Madness fans at Finsbury Park?  How we laughed, and yes kids, I’m that old, I was fucking there at the front watching that happen.  But then just a few years later Select magazine was parading The Good Mixer’s finest as the red, white and blue, but mostly white, saviours of rock and roll in explicitly nationalist terms.  There was something deeply unpleasant about the whole notion of Britpop.  I remember listening to ‘Clover Over Dover’ from Blur’s Parklife, with its Beachy Head suicide threat and wondering not only why I wasn’t listening to Massive Attack instead, but also just how we had got here and who was going to talk us down.

Well, as I write these words Theresa May has presented her Brexit deal to cabinet where it’s going down like a Lostprophets tribute band at a baby shower, leaving us, whoever we are, and our increasingly fictional nation facing our worst crisis since Russell Senior quit Pulp.

So here we are.  Cliff-edge time.

And so, to Damon Albarn.  For the Blur, Gorillaz and Africa Express frontman is back with a surprise new LP from his supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen, and it’s all about Brexit.  He’s been on a kind of lonely pilgrimage around England, on the basis that a man whose friends and business associates include people who can actually text David Cameron on the eve of the Brexit referendum and get a reply from the great man stating that it’s all gonna be fine, has some special affinity with the sort of bigoted cretin who thinks that sending my Polish friends back home will save the NHS.  Perhaps his assertion is even correct, and he does.  Produced by David Bowie’s long-term collaborator and producer Tony Visconti, the album is called Merrie Land – “modern English folk music with a bit of rub-a-dub in it”, according to bassist Paul Simonon, formerly of The Clash and more recently a rather atrocious painter.  And it pains me to say it, but it may very well be the album of the year.  It’s without doubt the most timely.

Musically, Merrie Land is an endlessly shifting collage of sounds and textures drawn from dub, new wave punk, psychedelia, folk, Caribbean steel pans and old-time musical hall, held together by the conceit that we’re at a ghostly end-of-the-pier show in northern Britain.  The nearest thing to Parklife here is ‘Gun to the Head’, which starts out haunted by the restless shade of Ian Dury but soon descends into a keening, Paul Hindemith inspired rewiring of the Wicker Man soundtrack.  In its fragility and ambition it could easily fall to bits, and live on Jools Holland’s show the other night, it arguably did, but throughout the album, Visconti’s production keeps each spectral thread of this unquiet landscape tightly woven into something that feels so solid you could cut it.  It harks back to his work with Bowie on early songs like ‘After All’ or ‘Cygnet Committee’ and one can only hope that Albarn uses his talents more in the future.

It’s nuanced and affecting music, for example when pairing Albarn’s vulnerability with the implacable force of the Penrhyn Male Voice Choir in the downbeat, off-kilter tides of ‘Lady Boston’.  It’s a beautiful meditation on migration, bookended by the menacing dancehall swagger of its companions, a suite of tracks which ooze The Clash at their most dub.  Simonon always grasped how to work Jamaican influences into something he could call his own.  Here he takes that sound out into England’s ports and coastal waterways, and in drummer Tony Allen he’s found his perfect foil.  Allen was afrobeat legend Fela Kuti’s drummer in the 1960s and was criminally underused in the first GBQ record eleven years ago.  This time he’s all over it, and his understated, polyrhythmic accompaniment is easily the album’s most important ingredient.  It’s his presence that stops Merrie Land from veering into an over-wrought procession of cliché.

Which brings me finally to Damon Albarn.  It’s all very well to explore the mythologies of Englishness, but the thing about myths is that engaging with them, even critically, imbues them with power.  And he presents us with a pretty grim parade of all the empty baubles of post-colonial Englishness.  They’re all here – silver jubilee mugs, fields of white crosses in Normandy, maypoles, booze and the eviscerated Fisher King awaiting rebirth on a hilltop at Merrie Land’s climax.  If he set out to discover the kind of land we might become after Brexit, then his answer is extremely pessimistic – it will be apocalyptic, and yes, fascist.  Much has already been made of his openly political lines in the title track, but throughout the album he’s on incendiary form: ‘Cubs make fires on the edge of the golf course, but there’s more / Of them than us now and they have come to settle scores / So there’s bound to be / Altercations / On the B-road / Where they don’t fly the union flag’ he mutters on ‘The Great Fire’ and the album forms a scathing and unambiguous prophecy of a land of violence and empty hedonism, a place of leaving that can only be left.  Each song re-iterates the theme of leaving – love dies, people migrate, and those who stay take leave of their minds and England becomes a repetitive carnival of folk horror: ‘We cheer on the clowns / As they roll into town / But their faces look tired and saturnine / As they carry the terrible things they’ve seen / All lost in a painting of sky coloured oil / in this Merrie Land’.  We’re too close, too caught up in history happening to tell if this is Brexit Bingo or Four Quartets, but as with T.S. Eliot’s opaque and allusive contribution to the war effort, whatever else you might think of it, there’s enough poetry here to keep you picking it over for years.

I wonder though if any of this is actually helpful, if the unremitting focus on Englishness, as with the nineties Britpop that continues to define Albarn, is actually part of the problem.  It keeps me from unreservedly hailing Merrie Land as the answer.  If you’re looking for records that posit a vision of who we are and where we’re going on this tiny, damp speck of universe I’d draw your attention to Low’s Double Negative or Haiku Salut’s There is No Elsewhere or anything by Sleaford Mods.  Even Suede’s recent career-high The Blue Hour seems closer to the bone since Brett Anderson gets it in a way that his old rival perhaps doesn’t.  England starts with the sacrificial Arthurian cult and from there proceeds into the cold hills for child murder, desolation and fly-tipping.  Merrie Land plays out with ‘The Poison Tree’ and the line “A last crusade / To save me from myself”, but oh by jingo, a crusade is the last thing that’s going to help this mess.  Caught up in its ebb and flow, however, all these reservations seem unimportant.  The music and words of Merrie Land hit so many targets, and with such precision, by turns grotesque and horribly emotionally exposed, that it’s never less than utterly compelling.

11 thoughts on “The Good, The Bad and The Queen – Merrie Land (Warner Music)

  1. I think I’d rather see the real lostprophets at a baby shower (if I was american or otherwise lived in a resolutely non-British country where such a thing was in any way acceptable) than hear Damon Albarns voice. Such a thing being baby showers not paedophiles, obvs.

    Does anyone know wher I can download instrumental versions of the entire blur back catalogue?
    Most overated musician of the last 30 years – and that really is saying something in a world where Radiohead exist.

  2. What a god awful review that is. Starts off culturally inaccurate and gets worse

    And any site that allows that Lost Prophets line past censor needs strutting down, fucking disgraceful

  3. ‘Strutting down’? It’s humour, isn’t it?!

    I think its a stretch to blame ‘Britpop’ (which was a caricatured pigeonhole and piece of PR spin for a wide range of British music(some good some not) but this is a great piece of big picture writing. Britpop was given its name by journos and defined by Modern Life is Rubbish’s push back against American culture. Its a wave existed before it was given this tag. Afterwards it became a bandwagon, even a band like Suede who were pushed as one of the original bands disliked the flag waving that would follow from Blur and Oasis (Noel’s union Jack guitar). So I am unsure the extent to which it gave cultural cover to eventual Brexit (how about delusions of empire and nationalism for a start?). But it’s still an amusing strand with a bit of merit (some of the cliches were a bit distasteful at times), however amongst that there was some great music of all kinds in that period, I wrote about my perspective with hopefiully some balance here http://www.godisinthetvzine.co.uk/2014/02/03/britpop-month-behold-the-retro/ and I agree that Brexit is an utter disaster.And this is a stonking review Colin.

  4. What did Brett do to push back when Select put him in front of a union jack in april 1993?

    I think it is highly likely that “alternative music” being affected and influenced by flag-waving white boys, as well as that flag waving sweeping the mainstream, encouraged nationalism and brexit. The real question was how significant was it’s obvious impact.

    Damon has a lot to answer for. As does any music journalist who bought into the flag waving.

    Additionally it is deeply uncaring to use Penrhyn Male Voice Choir on an album – what about people like me who are traumatised by having religious bullshit rammed down their throats against their will for most of their childhood and are-borderline phobic of everything that they associate with christianity as a result? Thoughtless cunt.

  5. Yeah I agree there is something to it, but I am not sure you can draw the line so clearly since in that era in my experience people were more open to multiculturalism and the flag waving stuff, although I wasn’t a fan, was largely a cliche of misguided patriotism and PR spin tagged onto it by Albarn, the press and the government in an effort to sell Britain to the world. But sure it didn’t help. The generation who are really to blame for Brexit if you go off the referendum vote are of the 60s and 70s, so if you want to blame any cultural movement for giving Brexit fuel then maybe the mod generation?! As for Brett he did object to a Union Jack being superimposed behind him on the Select cover, as Suede were never about waving the flag, the England they sang of was decidedly more fucked up and dirty than the cliched retro caricature served up by Blur, Supergrass etc, they existed apart from that as did the initial wave of the Auteurs, denim et al, Blur were the main band who really coined the idea as a response to grunge and were followed by Oasis et al later on. It quickly became a cliche and a bandwagon. Which to my mind is a shame as there was some really good music of all types back then but its largely overlooked because of the catchall/pigeonhole that became Britpop.

  6. The answer to your first line question is Yes. Britpop was championed by Brexit-hater Blair wasn’t it? If you insist on using the word cretin alongside the disturbing Lost Prophets comment then attach it to him, the most reviled politician in the damn country. For now. And if you’re going to use words like corruption, incompetence and lies, attach them to the European Union where they belong. I count 275 words of political rant before you start your review and then there’s even more rant. Think of the wear and tear on your keyboard you could have saved, lad.

  7. “the flag waving stuff, although I wasn’t a fan, was largely a cliche of misguided patriotism and PR spin” – yeah, but anyone with any intelligence should know that this is wrong and dangerous. I’m trying to remember exactly what I made of it back then… I saw very early gigs by suede, oasis and blur… but I was never a blur fan, and suede and oasis were bands I loved for the first few singles and debut album then quickly lost interest in, not least as there was all sorts of detroit techno and trance to listen to, as well as the romo scene which was infinitely more interesting to me than britpop (fuck me, romo was fucking forward looking in comparison, it was ripping off the music of ten years before, not 25 years before). Pretty sure I wasn’t as concerned by the flag waving as I should have been, but I’m also fairly sure I was decidely unimpressed with it.

    “if you want to blame any cultural movement for giving Brexit fuel then maybe the mod generation” – pretty poor point, but then again it does a reasonable job of countering mine.

    Back to techno… I think mid late 80s “indie” was experimental and forward looking, albeit there was much more conservative music too under the indie umbrella. To a large extent, by 1993/95 indie fans were splitting into two camps – the ones who like songs played on guitars who took the britpop route, and the ones like me who were indie fans because indie covered Spacemen 3 and MBV and AC Marias and Dr Phibes and Silverfish and Mudhoney and the Fall and all sorts of odd stuff, who naturally moved away from guitar music as the cutting edge of music became – clearly – dance music, not guitar music.

    Glad Brett did push back against the select cover. Must read his recent book – pretty sure i bought it for my other half so I ought to try to nab it off her.

  8. Of course, it was wrong. I dislike most illusions to nationalism and faded empire. I didn’t say it wasn’t worrying what I am not doing is drawing a direct link between that and Brexit. Maybe you could align it with the idea that Britain used to be better before multiculturalism before the EU(I did make a point on Facebook recently that Morrissey’s romanticism of an England gone doesn’t look so romantic now given his nationalistic and Brexit leaning comments about immigrants.) But I think this feeling has been bubbling in the British(well mainly English psyche) since the second world war, and the obsession with invading or fear of being ‘invaded'(it could be cultural invasion) is part of it. So to say Britpop played into that notion might be fair but to draw a direct link is somewhat tenuous for me, as this undercurrent existed before and arguably wasn’t as strong then as it is now. Also in the eyes of those pushing it, it was meant as a positive new kind of patrotism in the face of American culture taking over. In 97 Blair was voted in he was a champion of multiculturalism and the EU that was the prevailing trend then. I was being slightly cheeky with my mod comment, but most of the people who voted for Brexit are in their 50s, 60s and 70s so if you really want to blame a cultural movement then it follows.

  9. Brett in particular wanted nothing to do with it and said so, loudly, to anyone who’d listen. By the Autumn of 1993, the same year as the Select/Maconie ‘Union Jack’ cover, he was talking (NME interview, October 4th) about leaving the country and the NME cover headline was ‘ENGLAND DRIVES ME NUTS: Suede flee the flag’. All this was a good 6 months pre-Parklife.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.