11 Songs, 37 Minutes

EDITORS’ NOTES

In the wake of the EU Referendum, Damon Albarn decided to travel around Britain to get a sense of a nation plunged into dramatic change. After reconvening with his The Good, the Bad & the Queen bandmates—Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong—those meditative journeys fed into their second album, Merrie Land. It’s an impressionistic portrait of a conflicted, confused land, with funfair organs, choirs and tugging melodies folded into eerie but beautiful blends of folk, dub and pop. Albarn talks Apple Music through his pilgrimage and the “strange emotions” that inform the album.

It’s hard not to feel real sadness listening to this record. Is that the point?
I think so, maybe, but I think it’s, if you could call something this, a beautiful sadness. I don’t know what that kind of means.

On the title track, you sing, “This is not rhetoric/It comes from my heart/I love this country.” This record is trying to not be angry or bitter or take sides, right?
No, no, no, I’m not trying to break the family up. I’m trying to be honest and deal with those strange emotions, like love of place. Even though I’ve travelled, it’s fair to say, around the whole world, I always come back home. What’s driven me as a creative person to explore other climes and cultures is what I grew up with in this country. That was what’s special about this country: the sense of openness. That’s what we’re missing with all this hastiness to get stuff done because we decided we had to get it done by this point. That’s all I feel.

You visited various parts of Britain to get a sense of the nation, going beyond the big cities to towns, including ones from British folk tales such as Banbury. Is this record your pilgrimage?
I’d never been to St. Albans or Luton or Banbury. I hadn’t even really been to Oxford. There were things I was very aware of—big cultural landmarks—that I’d never visited. So, in that sense, pilgrimage is a good description. I found ghosts everywhere. Merrie Land is a ghostly record. You just have to tune into the dissonance and the resonance in each place and work from there, especially if we’re going to try and give an impression.

The songs take us from train rides past World War I cemeteries in France to heavy nights in Blackpool pubs. You’ve packed a lot in here.
Yeah! I’ve never written so many lyrics, so that was a breakthrough for me. It’s something I’d like to explore—more words. I suppose it goes back to Jack Kerouac. Back to Betjeman on the train, it’s got a strong sense of kinship with that, and people like Patrick Hamilton and George Orwell.

Three weeks before the release of Merrie Land you were still on tour with Gorillaz. How easy is it to switch between bands?
I just love making music, so it’s not that difficult. I had a strange four days: I finished the massive, euphoric gig in Mexico City [with Gorillaz] and then came back to a little room [in the UK] to rehearse for eight hours and go on national television. The only thing I regret is that we didn’t have a “work in progress” sign hanging over the microphone stand. Or cones and tape round us. We should’ve been wearing hi-vis jackets: “We haven’t quite built this place yet, but we’re definitely working at it.”

EDITORS’ NOTES

In the wake of the EU Referendum, Damon Albarn decided to travel around Britain to get a sense of a nation plunged into dramatic change. After reconvening with his The Good, the Bad & the Queen bandmates—Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong—those meditative journeys fed into their second album, Merrie Land. It’s an impressionistic portrait of a conflicted, confused land, with funfair organs, choirs and tugging melodies folded into eerie but beautiful blends of folk, dub and pop. Albarn talks Apple Music through his pilgrimage and the “strange emotions” that inform the album.

It’s hard not to feel real sadness listening to this record. Is that the point?
I think so, maybe, but I think it’s, if you could call something this, a beautiful sadness. I don’t know what that kind of means.

On the title track, you sing, “This is not rhetoric/It comes from my heart/I love this country.” This record is trying to not be angry or bitter or take sides, right?
No, no, no, I’m not trying to break the family up. I’m trying to be honest and deal with those strange emotions, like love of place. Even though I’ve travelled, it’s fair to say, around the whole world, I always come back home. What’s driven me as a creative person to explore other climes and cultures is what I grew up with in this country. That was what’s special about this country: the sense of openness. That’s what we’re missing with all this hastiness to get stuff done because we decided we had to get it done by this point. That’s all I feel.

You visited various parts of Britain to get a sense of the nation, going beyond the big cities to towns, including ones from British folk tales such as Banbury. Is this record your pilgrimage?
I’d never been to St. Albans or Luton or Banbury. I hadn’t even really been to Oxford. There were things I was very aware of—big cultural landmarks—that I’d never visited. So, in that sense, pilgrimage is a good description. I found ghosts everywhere. Merrie Land is a ghostly record. You just have to tune into the dissonance and the resonance in each place and work from there, especially if we’re going to try and give an impression.

The songs take us from train rides past World War I cemeteries in France to heavy nights in Blackpool pubs. You’ve packed a lot in here.
Yeah! I’ve never written so many lyrics, so that was a breakthrough for me. It’s something I’d like to explore—more words. I suppose it goes back to Jack Kerouac. Back to Betjeman on the train, it’s got a strong sense of kinship with that, and people like Patrick Hamilton and George Orwell.

Three weeks before the release of Merrie Land you were still on tour with Gorillaz. How easy is it to switch between bands?
I just love making music, so it’s not that difficult. I had a strange four days: I finished the massive, euphoric gig in Mexico City [with Gorillaz] and then came back to a little room [in the UK] to rehearse for eight hours and go on national television. The only thing I regret is that we didn’t have a “work in progress” sign hanging over the microphone stand. Or cones and tape round us. We should’ve been wearing hi-vis jackets: “We haven’t quite built this place yet, but we’re definitely working at it.”

TITLE TIME

About The Good, the Bad & the Queen

"The Good, the Bad & the Queen" refers to all the subjects that live under the London sun, so it's a fitting if awkward moniker for a project -- not a band, as its leader has strenuously asserted -- designed by Blur frontman Damon Albarn as a way to return to writing about England, specifically London, the subject that brought him to fame in the mid-'90s as one of the leading lights of Brit-pop. As he was completing work on Gorillaz's second album, Demon Days, he began working on the Good, the Bad & the Queen, which actually had its roots in an older project. Shortly after the turn of the millennium, he teamed up with Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen after the drummer heard that Albarn name-checked him in the chorus of "Music Is My Radar," the bonus track added to the 2000 comp The Best of Blur. During 2004, Albarn headed to Nigeria with former Verve guitarist Simon Tong to record with Allen and other African musicians, but before the album was completed he turned his attention toward Demon Days.

At the end of those sessions Albarn gave the Nigerian tapes to Gorillaz producer Danger Mouse and the music radically evolved into the Good, the Bad & the Queen, with the idea that this, despite its African origins, would be music about London. Initially, Albarn toyed with the idea that this would be a solo project, but it turned into a full-fledged band -- a band that now needed a bassist. Albarn called up Clash bassist Paul Simonon, who had retired from music over a decade ago to paint. Simonon was convinced to join this project, which now had an irresistible angle: the auteurs behind Parklife and London Calling, two quintessentially London LPs and two bona fide classics, were teaming up to make music about the town again. The resulting music may have had sounded little like either Parklife or London Calling -- it was a moody, languid affair, owing much to the Specials -- but it bore trademarks of all four musicians, from Albarn's ongoing obsession with music hall and pop songwriting to Simonon's loping basslines to Allen's rhythms to Tong's sensitive tonal colorings.

Before they released a record, the Good, the Bad & the Queen first started playing concerts, unveiling their complete album at a series of concerts, culminating with a gig at Camden's Roundhouse just before their debut single, Herculean, hit the shops. This spooky single appropriately surfaced the day before Halloween in 2006, followed by Kingdom of Doom in January 2007. The full-length The Good, the Bad & the Queen appeared that month as well on both sides of the Atlantic, greeted with uniformly positive (sometimes enthusiastic) reviews. Shortly after the album's release, Albarn began to insist in press interviews that this band had no official name, a bit of an odd move considering the numerous articles, written in 2006 as the group was recording, that called the outfit the Good, the Bad & the Queen. The quartet went on tour in the spring of 2007, playing events in New York and the Coachella festival. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine

ORIGIN
London, England
GENRE
Pop
FORMED
2006

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