Interviewed by the BBC recently about the new CD, Albarn mused upon the “stillness” in the music, and its possible relation to various London novels that have “an enormous resonance” for him: Martin Amis’s London Fields, Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. When he talks like that, he’s writing his own reviews, inviting critics into a nexus of musico-literary influences and supplying them with the appropriate terminology: an educated commentary might be possible after 10 minutes with the press kit. The Rotisserie Baseball quality of the band’s line-up is another brilliant distraction: Paul Simonon, as I’ve said before, is a man whose name alone has the cadence of a good, craggy reggae bass line, and the prospect of this low-end ruler of West London punk rock teaming up with a genius Afro-polyrhythmist like Tony Allen is tasty indeed, with the additional presence of Danger Mouse hinting at all manner of possibilities.
In fact — and it’s not altogether a surprise — The Good, the Bad & the Queen is much more about Albarn than about any of his distinguished collaborators. Simonon’s long-limbed dub bass goes loping recognizably through the opening “History Song,” and Allen gets shuffling on “Three Changes.” But by and large the musicians play with lush lounge-band restraint, strolling and vamping behind their lead singer as he weaves old England’s winding sheet.
It works and it doesn’t work. “80’s Life,” with its Blur outtake of a title, plink-plonks along to no measurable effect. But “Herculean” is ravishing, a velvety, cavernous Danger Mouse backdrop that sounds like the forgotten parts of the Clash’s Sandinista as reconceived by John Barry. “Fri-day night in the kingdom of doom” begins the single “Kingdom of Doom,” and Albarn’s sing-song delivery is perfect, capturing in a breath the feyness and seediness of a night out in London’s West End: the glue sniffers circling under ancient spires, the throb of vice from the overlit pubs. The brokenhearted London-ness of the music is somehow amplified by Albarn’s wandering, Parisian sense of melody: on “Nature Springs” he sings like a Situationist on a dérive, elegantly and emptily adrift in the music.
The lyrics are mostly moody, fall-of-Babylon stuff: wars, tidal waves, and crackheads on the village green. The Apocalypse has become a tradition of sorts in British pop music: “And I dread, dread to think what the future will bring/When we’re living in real gangster time,” sang the Specials in 1979’s “Gangsters.” A year later they released “Ghost Town,” and the lugubrious choirs and tumbleweed touches of that song are all over The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Albarn is not anticipating The End with the meltdown intensity of, say, Killing Joke’s Jaz Coleman: he is more of a casual boulevardier down the dissolving corridors of the future. In “Three Changes” he sings, “Today is dull and mild/On a stroppy little island of mixed-up people . . . ”