If you’re having trouble keeping track of Damon Albarn’s career, here’s a quick refresher: In the beginning there was Blur, and now there’s the de-Coxoned, slightly-less-interesting-but-not-yet-irrelevant version of Blur that released 13 (1999) and Think Tank (2003). There was the forgettable solo stint that spawned such efforts as Mali Music (2002) and Democrazy (2003), and now there’s Gorillaz, the quasi-fictional, uber-successful hip-hop project that has featured contributions from the likes of Shaun Ryder, Dennis Hopper and Ike Turner. (Ike freaking Turner!) You almost have to wonder if, when Albarn sits down to record with one of these outfits, he has to take a moment to collect himself and remember just what artistic impulse led him to conceive it in the first place.
It might be easy to equate all of these twists and turns with a lack of direction, but The Good, the Bad & the Queen (the name of the album put out by his new as-yet-unnamed band) proves that Albarn has, in fact, maintained his focus. The lineup here consists of ex-Verve (and sometimes-Blur/Gorillaz) guitarist Simon Tong, former Clash bassist Paul Simonon (how’s that for instant credibility?), and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen (of Fela Kuti fame) on drums. The resulting sound is a dub-heavy and atmospheric; full of echo and murkiness, the production clearly displays the talents of all players involved without calling attention to them. Understatement is the name of the game here, and producer Danger Mouse does an excellent job of preserving the record’s subtlety while still keeping things interesting. Most of the songs here focus, in one respect or another, on what it’s like-and what it means-to live in present-day West London. It’s no surprise, then, that The Good, the Bad & the Queen bears a sonic resemblance to Doves’ 2005 urban procedural, Some Cities.
The lyrics of The Good, the Bad & the Queen are informed by the current global political climate, but for as outspoken as Albarn has been over the last several years on such matters, his ideas and attitudes manifest themselves here more as lament and despondency than protest and outrage. In “’80s Life,” Albarn moans, “I don’t want to live a war/ That’s got no end in our time.” It’s a sad sentiment, and it’s one that’s echoed throughout the album. At first glance this may come as something as a disappointment–since when is it rock ‘n’ roll to give up?–resisting the album’s melancholy charms proves a difficult feat. The Good, the Bad & the Queen displays a discernible lack of interest in pop music but doesn’t eschew melody altogether: As mopey as these songs are, some border upon hummable. Unfortunately, there aren’t any stunners here, but the consistency is certainly formidable. This is an album built around a sound and a single narrative, but suffice it to say that “History Song,” “Nature Springs,” “Green Fields” and lead single “Herculean” probably flow into the ear the easiest.
If nothing else, The Good, the Bad & the Queen is a clear demonstration of Albarn’s maturation. The album stands in diametric opposition to ex-bandmate Graham Coxon’s latest solo effort, the guitar-laden Love Travels at Illegal Speeds. Coxon has seemingly dedicated himself to writing Blur-by-numbers tunes for the rest of his life–an exceedingly forgivable sin, if a sin at all–while Albarn continues to feel the constant desire to innovate. Listening to this record, it’s hard to imagine that this is the same Albarn that once wrote “Country House” and actually considered Noel Gallagher a rival.
Of course, it might be nice if Albarn could channel all of his inspirations (save the one that spawned Democrazy, perhaps) into one truly great album, but that’s an unreasonable-and unfair-thing to ask of such an accomplished artist. Albarn (along with Coxon) has created some of the best music of the past fifteen years, and if he suffers from a touch of musical wanderlust, so be it. He’s earned his stripes. And although I don’t get the sense that the band behind The Good, the Bad & the Queen will stay in tact for long–there’s a reason the band doesn’t have a name–it will serve as one of the more interesting and rewarding turns in the ever-evolving career of one of our best and most interesting songwriters.