The Good, the Bad and the Queen
The Good, the Bad and the Queen
ondon is burning. Or rather, as the cover of The Good, the Bad & the Queen testifies, London burned down long ago, back when Paul Simonon swung his bass in the punk vanguard and Tony Allen served the Black President. The smoldering city is inhabited by a sound full of holes and vacancies, the music of troubled, smoke-addled slumber, the sleep of the homeless, refugees from the day-world of cellphones, TV, supermarkets. Welcome to the United Kingdom: “Today is dull and mild / On a stroppy island / Of mixed up people.”
It is no longer possible to conceive of a straight-up Blur album, sans guests both awesome and faddy, just as the mind rejects the idea of a Damon Albarn solo album. Albarn has become a walking nucleus: positively charged, gathering musicians around him in an impenetrable, blinding swirl of energy and motion. Fusion is the name of the game, and Albarn, aided by accessory-to-dub Danger Mouse, is on a roll.
The presence of Paul Simonon and former Fela percussionist Tony Allen may invite comparison to Joe Strummer’s latter-day pursuit of a multi-culti musical nirvana, but Albarn’s project has a mournful, curatorial sobriety that is nothing like the Mescaleros’ bright-eyed bandying. Despite the whimsical moniker, The Good, the Bad & the Queen is surprisingly serious, even earnest, barely cracking a smile for crypto-contemporary quips (“Don’t kick the crackheads off the green, they’re a political body”). It also eschews any tempo greater than pedestrian with determined deliberation, giving it a strange, diverted-expectations tension that makes their live show simultaneously snoozey and arresting, as Simonon swings his bass righteously only to come to glowering, interruptus rest every few bars. It’s this tension of absence that makes the album a sneaky grower—all frustrated urges and incomplete desires.
A late addition to what was originally billed as an Albarn-Danger Mouse-Simonon project, much of the album criminally sidelines Allen, depending instead on Albarn’s kak-handed piano playing for its stolid rhythm. But when Allen does surface on “Nature Spring” and the standout “Three Changes,” his polyrhythms, supple and dangerous as a yew sapling, make dub’s traditional, reverb-smeared percussion sound like an amateur’s prototype.
Not quite the yawning, cavern-eyed cartoon-figure of the Gorillaz albums, here Albarn’s lugubrious, frowning vocals sound stunned and beaten, but still not quite done fighting, prodded and provoked by Simonon’s martial basslines. He sounds like 2-D buttoned into the shirt of a working stiff, laid off and simmering. You can hear echoes of the Tube bombings in the bleakness of “Herculean”: “Call for prayer has come around here / In the morning / We wash our faces, go to work / There is no warning / That it all gets better when life is straight / Its bigger than you the welfare state.”
There are many things that the album-with-the-disconcertingly-long-title is not, and it risks being a minor album pilloried for major-league expectations, caught between the logic of Tony Allen + Paul Simonon together at last = ineffable awesomeness, and the reality of radically different musical backgrounds pulling in four different directions. But Captain Albarn is no fool. He and Danger Mouse, two of the most adept pop contortionists, understand each other at some mystic level. The Good, The Bad & The Queen will get no parties started, save those hosted by voodoo whiteboys burning the monarch in effigy. It is a funereal album whose spark and anger is obscured like the smoldering foundations of a burnt out city.