In 2018, there was one album I’d been waiting for: Anderson .Paak’s Oxnard. Dre was producing, “Tints” had the funky verve I’d been praying for. His live performance on SNL exuded polished and restrained swagger. Clearly he was someone who knew they were about to serve a rare and bloody steak to a blindfolded lion. The morning of its release, however, a spotlighted puppet singing dispassionately about “animal lovers” over a chorus of fairground strings and underwater synth-pops arrested my attention. It was a clip from “Gun to the Head”, an ad for The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s sophomore album Merrie Land. I suddenly forgot about Oxnard.
Somehow (Oxford bubble) it had escaped my attention that Damon Albarn had reformed his old supergroup. The Clash’s Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong, and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen joined forces with him over a decade after their eponymous debut. Initially the exuberant Donne, leading a gritty avant-garde tour through the grime of an urban England on the cusp of financial crisis, Albarn practically revelled in the ruin he exposed. Now he is a disillusioned Ovid in exile. Merrie Land is Albarn’s Tristia, his ‘Epistulae ex Ponto’ – a love letter to an England he no longer feels a part of. Or perhaps he no longer understands England, questioning whether he ever did.
For all this philosophising, Merrie Land never feels self-important or -indulgent. Albarn epigrammatically labels this “Anglo-Saxistentialism”. It’s a concept album about what it means to be British in 2018. Furthermore, for an album which is clearly (if implicitly) all about Brexit by one of Britain’s most vocal Remoaners, it feels more elegiac than embittered, more mournful than scornful. The title taps into the thousand-year national myth of “Merrie England”: a fever-dream of a legendary, almost ahistorical, visionary landscape. However, in this new mythology, it’s not so easy to hold on to the mirth which used to run in the rivers and grow in the trees. It’s slipping away. “England” is just “Land” now. Something’s missing.
“Merrie Land never feels self-important or -indulgent”
The soundscapes of the album also capture the shifting tones of a modern British identity crisis. Chirpy carousel chimes vie for space with thumping, almost trudging, ska basslines. Compound and simple rhythms play over and against each other in a dance of discordant harmony. Song deteriorates into broken speech, only to burst back into song over samples of war-time news-broadcasts and recordings of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the literary OG of surveying the state of the nation. Overall, punks, brit-poppers, and Nigerian drummers combine to weave a new British tapestry of sound.
But it isn’t Albarn’s cracked and aging vocals which controls the chaos. Although they glide mournfully amongst the moving musical moods, like moonbeams on the Medway, the restrained and sensitive lyricism in his writing takes centre stage. I’ll give one example: “Ribbons”. In what seems a post-truth reimagining of the Kinks’ playful critique of naïve conservatism in “The Village Green Preservation Society”, Albarn is ashamed of the emblems which he feels ought to be a source of national pride. Instead they seem to create a symbol of arrogant nationalism. He sings, painfully:
I am the Maypole
Dancing with the sun
I wear my ribbons white and red
I am the morning
Flowers in my hair
I am your son and heir
In other words, he is England. But England is also:
All falling out of the sky
I wear my ribbons black until I die
I am the dark wood, the river, and the blood
I am the lover lost
Above all, it’s a tender lamentation for estrangement as a national identity.
The Guardian’s Michael Hann’s criticism of the album is that whilst it has much beautiful writing, “it never materialises into something concrete”. I feel he has missed the point. He wants it spelled out for him in plain English. He won’t drift and trawl through the music. If he did, he’d understand that the experience of listening to the album in itself affects the feeling of displacement and disassociation which prompted its genesis.
Perhaps it is then more akin to Ovid’s Fasti: a song cycle of national rituals and emblems – maypoles, vaudevilles, fishing boats, piers, dogs, television sets. It both praises and mourns, highlighting all at once their painful ideological importance, also utterly shattering insignificance through its own formal confusion and incompletion. But really it’s less bleak than that. Merrie Land is as much an elegy to England as an eulogy to the power of music to unite in an age of division. Likewise, Albarn sings in “Gun to the Head”:
Required of this song
Is a case for love
When everything else
That keeps us together’s conspiring to tear us apart.
Album cover by Studio 13