Friday, December 14, 2007

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE QUEEN, The Good, the Bad & The Queen
Observer Music Monthly #1 Album of the Year, December 9 2007

by Simon Reynolds

In recent years, Damon Albarn has been cutting something of a David Byrne-like figure. From his Luaka Bop-like label Honest Jon’s and its excavation of worthy world-y musics to his score to Chen Shi-Zheng’s “circus opera” Monkey: Journey to the West (recalling Byrne's collaboration with Twyla Tharp), Blur's frontman has matured into one of those honorable elder types, the sort that plugs away at mildly ambitious projects long after their moment in the pop sun has passed.

On the face of it, then, the news that he’d formed a supergroup, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, was not especially pulse-quickening. The opaque, clunky name wasn’t enticing, and nor was the motley line-up of ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen. Yet when it arrived in cold, grey January, the self-titled debut turned out be--provided you gave it time to sink in, let yourself sink into its diffuse melancholy--absolutely brilliant. As you’d expect given Albarn’s previous melodic form, there’s echoes of The Kinks and the more fragile, yearning side of the Clash (“Lost in the Supermarket”). But TGTB&TQ’s sound was Britpop “corrected”. The insularity of that movement’s version of musical Englishness was opened wide to incorporate Allen’s subtly unsettled Afro-beats (skittering most brilliantly on the extraordinary “Three Changes,” a moment of genuine something-new-under-the-sun wonder) and Simonon’s reggae-inflected bass. Indeed like other good 2007 things--Burial and Pinch's dubstep, the cruelly ignored Lady Sovereign album, the North's bassline sound--TGTG&TQ’s “Waterloo Sunset”-in-dub sound showed how reggae has become part of our native pop birthright, a living legacy any Briton can draw on.

With its lyrical references to Goldhawk Road and Lord Hills Bridge, TGTB&TQ was "the record Peter Ackroyd might have made," as Simonon put it. But London here stood for the country as a whole, a “stroppy little island of mixed up people”. Albarn’s imagery of flood-water and derelicts evoked the rudderless malaise that grips the UK (and much of the West). Where Britpop celebrated the invincibility of youth (Oasis’s “Live Forever”, Supergrass’s “Alright”), the mood of TGTG&TQ was… vincible. The contrast between then and now is dramatized by the shift from Albarn’s demeanour and posture circa “Parklife” (the chipper, fresh-faced, perky-spined lad of the video) to the slumped, stubbly, mumble-voiced character of today. The desolate, shaming backdrop of Iraq was crucial to the album's despondent vibe, but just as key was the time of life Albarn has reached. This was adult music, made by and for people who’ve been battered by life a bit.

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