Live review: The Good, the Bad and the Queen, SWG3, Glasgow, Sun 2 Dec
- David Pollock
- 5 December 2018
Albarn's angered, evocative lyricism shines through without any need for pop hits
Damon Albarn has made a career out of pop cultural whimsy rooted in a particularly Anglophile view. In the fantasy lands of his music and lyrics, all that reminds of home – his particular corner of home in middle class Essex, at least – is based around a broth of the outstanding pop musical legacy of artists raised within reach of the banks of the Thames (Blur, his own formative group, are one of them), nostalgic memories of a halcyon and particularly British upbringing, and a sense of self-awareness that a romantic dedication to his own country can't mitigate the fusty bureaucracy, dull everyday avarice, corporate dimwittery and dedication to alcohol-fuelled annihilation which also count as national character traits.
In 2018, with Brexit trudging dolefully closer like a house guest many of us don't want to see and most of the rest would rather not have over until the place is looking better, it's good to have Albarn back; if only for the fact that the whimsical, pre-millennial optimism of Blur's music seems somewhat anachronistic, now that the viral transmission of online dissatisfaction and rage means Britain's national identity appears to be that of a casino used for the playing of one single game of high-stakes, all-or-nothing poker.
Albarn has declared himself the very opposite of a Brexiteer, and with Blur no longer around to tell us how Tracy Jacks, Ernold Same, Colin Zeal and the cast of quirky estuary archetypes from their songs are getting on in 2018, it falls to The Good, the Bad and the Queen to do the job. Originally convened in 2007 for their apparently one-off, eponymous album in tribute to the city of London, the group – former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, former Verve second guitarist Simon Tong and Nigerian drummer and lynchpin of the Afrobeat sound Tony Allen – have made a rapid return in the past few weeks with Merrie Land, just in time for some interminable Brexit debates.
The bulk of the set at their second full comeback show following a night in Blackpool is the recital of Merrie Land in full, with a garish backdrop up-lit with the band's shadows and the eerie, old-fashioned ventriloquist's doll who occasionally assists Albarn helping to recast Britain as an aged and degraded pierfront attraction. The title song opens the show, its insistent organ sound forming a frightrock elegy for the nation built on memories of 'my Silver Jubilee mug (and an) old flag'.
With Albarn spending roughly equal amounts of the show at his piano and on the mic, these songs are more than ever primarily a delivery mechanism for his lyrics; this time he very clearly has something to say, and he wants to be heard. 'Don't trespass over the line on the map,' he grumbles on 'Gun to the Head'. 'Required of this song is a case for love / When everything else that keeps us together is conspiring to tear us apart.' 'The Great Fire' is a melancholy hymn to grey, intoxicated oblivion with a great, dub reggae bassline, and 'Lady Boston' bears the respectful Welsh-language coda 'Dwi wrth dy gefn, dwi wth dy gefen di' ('I'm at your back, I'm sorry for you').
With Albarn's guitar slung over his shoulder, he references the Morris dancer's maypole on 'Ribbons' and hints at the artefacts of 'New Age cultism' on 'The Truth of Twilight', resurrecting a kind of optimistic mysticism within the mundane of which Iain Sinclair would be proud. He appears somewhat nervous, enveloped by all this new music, but allows a relieved 'thank you, I'm enjoying it too' in response to an audience member near the end, before the bristling border-closure epic 'The Last Man to Leave'.
There are no Blur or Gorillaz-style hits here, but it's in the heart of the music, and in Albarn's angered, evocative lyricism, where these slow-burners find their zeitgeist-laden mark. By comparison, the nostalgic Kinks rock of 'Kingdom of Doom' and prowling ska organ of 'Three Changes', amid an encore of older songs, sound positively radio-friendly. Yet this music comes from a deeper and darker place than the need for pop hits, and it fits well alongside Albarn's more lighthearted early-career explorations of place and nationality.
Seen at SWG3, Glasgow, Sun 2 Dec. Merrie Land is out now on Studio 13.