The Good, the Bad and the Queen refers to the name of former Blur leadman Damon Albarn's new non-Gorillaz project and album, but, weirdly, not the band itself.
After strolling through this darkly dense creation, the lack of a name takes on an appropriate quality. The über group lineup consists of Albarn, past greats Paul Simonon of the Clash, former Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Afro-pop innovator Tony Allen.
What they have wrought is a distinctly wartime product, which calls into question their purpose and longevity. Did these powerhouse personas assemble to capture the ground mood of London amid prolonged war and then disperse afterward? That remains unknown. But TGTBATQ does unswervingly play like an anxious sonic time capsule.
It's very much akin, stylistically and conceptually, to Thom Yorke's 2006 solo debut The Eraser, but it also offers a more pleasing aesthetic. Both operate through muted, mostly gray, colorations. The Eraser, however, veered into an excessively drab approach and, at times, came off like half-baked Mac improvisations. Conversely, Albarn et al have constructed an evocative, full-bodied work that aims for a tone and thoroughly nails it. Its sounds always seem to be drifting and fading, but what results is beautiful gloom.
Like much of the Western world, Albarn has war on his mind, but he wisely resists simplistic ideological sloganeering. This is about emotional exhaustion that has given way to detachment. Bush, Rumsfeld and Blair are never name-dropped. Instead the lyricism is spare and hauntingly vague. "When do I see the light/ It's all gone dead in a way," he sings on "'80s Life." He is not protesting perceived calamities as much as he is submitting to their intractable anxiety.
On "Herculean," he mines an understated ghostly flow for its entire emotive potential. A thin percussive gallop coats his lyrics with dark tension. The line, "Everyone on their way to heaven slowly" is remarkable. It taints the notion of ascension into paradise with an unpleasant, robotic quality. Albarn's vocals sound filtered and hollowed out through a high school intercom (like Julian Casablancas' on Is This It?), which further boosts the texture of isolation.
The backdrops that accompany this dour subject matter easily match its wearied mood. Hot beatmaker Danger Mouse helms the production effort and lets loose an abundance of fuzz storms, satellite effects and synth strings to decorate the minimalist instrumentation. Indeed, it's difficult to locate the specific contributions from all four members. The stellar "History Song" rolls to thick strumming and a tiptoeing bass line, but such sounds often muddle into the dense haze of electronica rhythms.
"Kingdom of Doom" features a similarly restrained dynamic that eventually becomes subsumed in little screeches and eerie hops. It all boasts a highly hypnotic texture, like the glazed feel of a steady reefer hangover. "Nature Springs" embodies this quality as it lightly combines subdued percussion with swirling overcast beats. Remember the ethereal lull of "Golden Brown," the Stranglers' song from the "Snatch" soundtrack? TGTBATQ somewhat approximates that essence but strips away the sheen and crisp lucidity for more darkened, stoned arrangements.
Albarn strives for tonal consistency and succeeds perhaps too well, as a formulaic steadiness sets in at times. The second side contains a trio of middling drifters — "The Bunting Song," "A Soldier's Tale" and "Three Changes." By this point, the mode of execution is firmly established. The delivery remains unchanged, but the results on these three entries don't evoke and prod like their counterparts. The two closers, "Green Fields" and "The Good, the Bad and the Queen," ultimately render these missteps inconsequential. Both employ varying degrees of progression, but the heightened punchiness of the latter shifts the general haze into a kinetic speed chase. The enlivened guitar coda is a surging release for the band, as they rock loudly with guns ablaze. It almost sounds like a lo-fi guitar jam from Queens of the Stone Age, but one that's a life-affirming pinch.
In the end, TGTBATQ belongs firmly to Albarn and should be viewed as his outlet for embattled personal expression. He sheds all remnants of his ostentatious, inner asshole and presents himself as a broken, pleading Londoner who, though privileged, can't escape reality's sting. His restraint in this endeavor is doubly impressive. Who would have thought? Wartime often engenders artistic excess and overreach. To its immense benefit, rhetorical flourishes are not on the agenda here. This is a total comedown album, full of uncertain empathy and graceful disillusionment.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5