The Good, The Bad & The Queen: Merrie England Album Review
The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Released: 16 November, 2018
Finding hope and hate in Britain through a poet’s eye.
It’s been 11 years since The Good, The Bad and The Queen (GBQ) released their eponymous debut album, a love letter to London, and much has changed in this Merrie Land since then. In GBQ’s own expression we are in an Anglo-Saxostentialist crisis as, politically at least, we break our bonds with Europe. The closeness of the Brexit vote clearly shows a country divided in its desires and hopes, as well as its fears, and it is the land of Britain, post-Brexit vote, that GBT address with their release, Merrie Land.
The band consist of Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong and for a band that only come together once every 11 years they sound perfectly attuned, a band made in England, made in the world. The complex but simple sounding drum patterns add punctuation and accentuation; the bass is a deep groove and cool as fuck; the guitars and keyboards swirl and swoop like a circus coming into dead season towns whilst Damon’s voice strains at the lease of emotion. Together they create a new British folk music, using traditional instruments mixed up with rock, that utilises all those influences that have created this Isle. It is music that draws on all the participants rich heritage from music hall, dub, punk, to create a wonderful panoramic and inclusive view. It is also incredibly beautiful, poetic and melancholic. If anyone doubts that popular music can be truly poetical and literary, then read Albarn’s lyrics.
The title track opens proceedings with a dub beat and an air of melancholy and remembrance. The bass is low down, the drums off the beat. It is a lament for a land stolen by the few, those yahooing hooraying few, who exploit and degrade and laugh, yet still Albarn sings that: “It comes from my heart, I love this country/This is not rhetoric/It comes from my heart/I love this country.” whilst he is scathing towards those who rule us: “Daneland I am your kin/You were the ones who work together/Put the money in the pockets/Of the few and their fortunes/Who crowd the school benches/And jeer at us all because they don’t care about us/They are graceless and you shouldn’t be with them/Because they are all disconnected and raised up in mansions.” it feels like a vision across the fields and cities of this land.”
Gun To The Head starts with woodwind and reminds me of Robert Wyatt (another half-forgotten English songwriter of immense skill). Musically it mixes up music hall and dub/reggae and addresses the dichotomy of how the English all love animals, whilst putting down man-traps to keep people off our land.
Nineteen Seventeen opens with discordant sounds, like machine gun fire and distant explosions, before resolving into a scatter beat drum. It’s a song not just about the war that haunts our national psyche still, but about the Empire building that went along with it: “And we waltzed around the world/As though we were off our heads/And I say why/Why are we not brought to book.”
An atmospheric opening to The Great Fire conjures up music halls and a whirly-gig of fun fairs in out of season seaside resorts. It’s a curio of cornucopia around England, featuring a motley crew of Dickensian mugs and dogs. The song builds incrementally and images of dyspeptic bankers and lonesome wankers of merrie old England float before our eyes, making you want to weep for what has become of us. At the end of the song there is a howl, like one howling into the abyss. The lyrics are short and snappy, conjuring up images with a smattering of words, an England we know and despair of: “Is 15 milligrams/A way to a dream you can never touch?/Lips like a Zeppelin/Sticky brown Chinese, coke and a dummy/Metal detector/Blue skies/Joyous waves/Alcoholism disguised with a balloon or two/On Preston station/The rust on our palms/Greenbelt, pleasant land/Fills the smoky room/With the headlamp fairy lights/Suit clad purple tinsel/Karaoke knave Tuesday night/At Tiffanys/Six cocktails nursed/A million ways back to the sea.”
Lady Boston has a musical automaton sound, with a tinkling piano over the top. It segues into a calliope carousel calypso beat on a cliff edge of the seaside. The circus moves on, leaving only torn handbills, proclaiming extraordinary feats, becoming wet with the desultory rain. In the background a Welsh choir sings a lament.
An Irish flute opens Drifting And Trawlers, a poetical musing akin to Dylan Thomas that brings to mind a sea captain, grizzled and bitter, staring out across the ocean, dreaming of past lives and past loves. It is finely crafted, musically and lyrically. “They were trawling/Down at the bottom where everything ends/And the lovers I have lost have gone.”
The Truce Of Twilight is a deep dub with a vocal delivered almost rap like by Albarn. It has a slinky, night time beat that swirls like a sea shanty and a Gilbert and Sullivan backing chorus. Albarn sings of the belief that we are going back to the glory days of England; bringing back the old idols and let swallows declare spring has come. “Enjoy it while it lasts because soon it will be different/Pernicious playgrounds and new age cultism/Outbreaks of optimism in care homes of England/The famous goodwill dumped in your fly tips so…/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.”
Ribbons starts with a scratchy acoustic guitar and then bursts out like a May Day cloud on the horizon. The ribbons are on the Maypole, the medals and the flags of old England. There is a Kinks influence here, but with a more beautiful melancholia. The sun glistens on a Maypole in an empty English village, whose inhabitants are all weekend commuters.
The Last Man to Leave hones in on the quirky English stoicism and stubbornness. It looks at the paranoia that always comes from isolationism. Do we want to be alone in the world? Do we want the culture and music of immigrants in our green and pleasant land? “Because it sounds better over there/We don’t want you anymore/We like the bed that we’ve made to lie in much better thank you/I’ll be the last man to leave.he houses of joy and disappointment of the Windrush/Street sweepers leave your music/On the other side of the pavement.”
The final track is the reggae beat Poison Tree, with its steel drums a backdrop to grey, rainy streets not hot Jamaican sun; the vocals swirling and plaintive: “Because our love is lying on a fallow field/It’s the seed that you sow/That’s scattered with the fallen shields/Of a last crusade to save me from myself.”
Whilst many of us may be drunk on opinions about Brexit there are voices that still demand to be heard. Maybe it is poets, after all, who will guide us to a better world, rather than the politicians and the extreme minded. What GBQ have summoned up here is a Merrie Land we all recognise, a mirror to ourselves, a land where drinks are nursed in cold boozers that still show the yellow stains of historic smokers who could smoke freely in the warm. Who now huddle outside, clinging to tabs for warmth, their breaths as cold as their dreams.
The whole thing sounds a like a sad lament at an end of pier show – clowns melancholic and jugglers dexterous and trapeze artists performing feats of daring that no audience oohs and ahhs at anymore.
It is a melancholic clown performance for melancholic clowns.
And it’s rather beautiful.