|The Good, the Bad, & the Queen:
The Good, the Bad, & the Queen Label: Parlophone/Virgin
You have to admire the near-flippant nature with which Damon Albarn chooses his projects. If he feels like making a Gorillaz record, damn it, you’re getting a Gorillaz record. If, while making a Gorillaz record, he feels like forming a new band with guitarist Simon Tong (the Verve), drummer Tony Allen (Fela Kuti) and Clash bassist Paul Simonon, well, damn it, that’s what you’re getting, and you’ll thank him for the privilege. Resurrecting Brit-pop giants Blur, it appears, isn’t even on his radar, but perhaps that’s because former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon is making better Blur records than Blur themselves are capable of these days.
So what to make of this new band of Albarn’s, dubbed the Good, the Bad & the Queen? Comparisons to his pervious work do not come quickly or easily. The mood is measured and studied, with none of the emotional outbursts that peppered both Blur’s and Gorillaz’s albums. The lyrical tone is dark – pitch black, in fact – but the melodies are just light enough to keep the goings atmospheric, rather than bleak. Perhaps the most refreshing thing about The Good, the Bad & the Queen is that Albarn is writing songs for a band again. That band may not be Blur, but it is a good sign that he’s almost ready to be a frontman once again.
Several songs, in fact, contain layered vocals that are not far removed from “Beetlebum” or “Country House.” The doo wop-ish “’80s Life,” for example, sports some soaring harmonies in the chorus, the second of which, no joke, appears to sport a reference to Night Ranger. “Call it living in this country / Call it missing dawn patrol / It’s eighties life, and it’s all gone right for you,” Albarn says. “Herculean” sounds like Gorillaz covering a lost track from the Leisure sessions. The drum track does that start-stop thing, but the driving force is Albarn’s piano and some haunting backing vocals. “Kingdom of Doom” is the song that’s going to perk up the ears of Blur fans, though. With a chorus that’s straight from Brian Wilson’s brain, “Kingdom” is the brightest music Albarn’s penned in ages. Well, that chorus is, anyway: the verse is Lennon to the chorus’ McCartney. Albarn also takes a nick of “Karma Police” on the creepy-good “Nature Springs,” while the album-closing title track is a grown-up, fleshed-out spin on the Modern Life Is Rubbish flame-out “Intermission.”
The most surprising part of The Good, the Bad & the Queen is the minimal presence of Simonon’s bass. With the exception of the “Ghost Town”-riffing opening track “History Song,” Simonon (who looks like he could be Albarn’s father in the photo of the band in the artwork) does not exactly exert himself here. True, Simonon had given up the bass for a paintbrush for the last couple decades, but when you recruit a member of the only band that matters for your latest album, let him leave a mark, for God’s sake.
Simonon’s marginalization aside, The Good, the Bad & the Queen suggests that Albarn, for the first time in a long time, is beginning to enjoy himself again. What that means for the future of Blur or any of Albarn’s other bands is anyone’s guess, but one should take good news whenever and wherever he can get it.