Thursday, 13 March 2008

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

The main problem that a ‘supergroup’ will face is to make music that exceeds the sum of its parts. Supergroups tend to go down one of two routes: the first is that they become a star vehicle, ruled by the cult of personality and a complete lack of restraint in terms of musical excess. The second is to adopt a reductionist strategy and attempt to sublimate themselves (and more importantly their egos) within the body of work. Both paths are fraught with danger, and while both are well trod they seldom end in success.
The Good, The Bad and the Queen fall somewhere between these two stools. In presenting themselves as a raffish East End Last Gang In Town they attempt to establish credence for the notion of themselves as a musical entity entirely separate from their predecessors. Indeed the band themselves claim to have no name and that they are together to perform music, pure and simple, shunning the traditional band mentality. Yet when you take a roll call of the incumbents’ previous musical projects (Blur, The Clash, Gorillaz, Mali Music, The Verve, Fela Kuti and Afrobeat), the sense of musical history and legacy becomes hard to ignore and each member’s past pervades the album. This personal history led Albarn and Simonon to choose venues for their debut tour that they have an affinity with. This idea of a specific place, both isolation and association with, is a key theme on the album. The album itself takes on the form of a loose concept album, united by its core themes, in which Albarn takes on the role of a psychogeographical explorer, corresponding relentlessly from the emotional hinterland that their music occupies. Albarn has often used London to map complex emotions, and this latest work is no different. He uses the topography of the city to create a narrative of unease, of malaise, of despondency in the gasworks, canals, empty places and unseen histories of the city that is genuinely disarming. The drift of memory is a constant presence, from the Victorian painting by Thomas Shotter Boys of the Mint burning inside the walls of the Tower on the cover, to the attempts by the writer to document his escape from his past.
Which brings us to the music. Like an old LP the album is split between two distinct sides. The first six songs are the more dynamic on a purely surface level, whilst the second side is less upbeat. The first side is denser, the whole mix pervaded with a sense of dread which jars with Albarn’s vaudevillian sensibilities. It is a trait that has been evident in almost every project that he has been involved in as a major song writing partner, from Leisure to Demon Days. This finds its voice principally on opener “History Song” and “80s Life”, the former building on a sparse yet exciting guitar line to create an organic music hall meets dub structure, while the latter possesses wonderful doo wop vocals, swooping harmonies and excellent muted arpeggios from guitarist Simon Tong. Tong’s playing throughout is understated, perfectly restrained and phrased. Rhythm section Simonon and Allen create a rocksteady foundation, with Allen taking a backseat on the majority of the second side, augmenting the sound with flicks and sparse beats. The synth line in “Northern Whale” is perhaps the most danceable melody I heard in all of 2007, while “Kingdom of Doom”, with its promise of ravens flying overhead, continues to create the environment of dread. “Drink all day, coz the country is at war”, Albarn intones. Considering the context in which it is made, it is an admirable sentiment.
The standout track on the album is “Herculean”, the band’s first single release. The layered vocals, processed sounds, synths, Tong’s measured minor key guitar motif and the scattershot drums offer the most fractured, somnambulant and eerie soundscape the album has to offer. It is also the track that best exemplifies producer Danger Mouse’s alchemic skills at the desk – from such simple stock a track of wonder is created. “Behind the Sun” is the most Gorillaz-esque song on the album, an effortlessly bucolic song that points to the remainder of the album in its final moments with a wonderful string refrain George Martin would have been proud to put his name to.
What is evident when comparing The Good, The Bad & The Queen to the early Blur albums is that Albarn has stripped the music back to its barest. This is witnessed in both the sparse lyrics, with oblique references replacing the vignettes of life in England that dominated in his early writing. The sonic palette is also reduced, and while this has led to criticism in certain areas I strongly believe that the tonal consistency adds coherency to the whole album. Whilst unmistakeably a bleak record it contains elements of light and beauty. It is an album that looks back to its references yet is resolutely grounded in the here and now, with all the preoccupations of this flaccid, turbulent century. Welcome to the dread zone.

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