The Good, the Bad & the Queen Review
by Jason Marder
Damon Albarn, simply put, is a magician. Musically, at least, everything he touches seems to turn to gold. Though he's been labeled a dictator of the mixing board and a pretentious dabbler, behind the melancholy façade lies the mind of a sonic genius that only ripens with age. Whether intentionally or not, Albarn has metaphorically gone through a lifespan with his various musical endeavors; crafting quirky, elementary pop tunes with Blur in his early days, moving on to the feel-good adolescence of the Gorillaz, and finally sinking into the humdrum and midlife crises of adulthood with The Good, the Bad & the Queen. With this new project, Albarn keeps true to the metaphor, assuming a general tone of regret and sobriety as he looks back on all he's missed while under the suffocating veil of super-stardom.
The best thing about Albarn, however, is his ability to get the world at large right where he wants them, simply by knowing how to really play "the game". The ringleader surrounds himself with new, yet strikingly familiar names, in a new band, with a new look and feel. But don't be alarmed, there's something for everyone in The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Keeping time is the unrivaled Tony Allen, percussion extraordinaire of Fela Kuti fame. On guitar, Simon Tong of the Verve. On bass, none other than Paul Simonon of the Clash. What improvements could such a lineup need, you ask? How about just a little more star power to further raise the level of divinity: the familiar and beloved Danger Mouse, who lends his general prowess to the entire record. The assembly of such a super group, maybe the super-est our generation will lay eyes and ears on, only serves to reaffirm the general consensus: Albarn is a god.
With a cast like that, the hype is destined to be monumental. What's even more significant is the need to deliver; to live up to said hype. By garnering a sound unlike anything anyone could have ever imagined, a sound that's completely unique and unfettered by likenesses of any of the members' previous musical obligations, Albarn and co. do indeed step up to the plate. A general undercurrent of disappointment graces the tracks, perfect for the self-afflicted, self-medicated masses of today that Albarn addresses on the ethereal second single, "Herculean" ("the medicine man is here 24/7, you can get it fast in Armageddon"). While some may say the general simplicity of the production is uncharacteristic and out of place given the caliber of each piece of the whole, the rudimentary tracks give an existential and sublime quality to the music. They seem to serve more as emotional seedlings just lingering until they're in season than anything else, forcing one to think that such a low-key record is truly intentional in order to send a desired message. In this age, the idea of a "hidden meaning" has too often been used an excuse to overcomplicate. Albarn's interpretation is obviously quite the contrary, resulting in tuned down music that makes every word count. Maybe by the end of the record we'll come to momentous conclusions, maybe the solutions will get spelled out before us, maybe as Albarn says in the album's opener, "History Song", "if you don't know it now, then you will today".
Albarn's main qualm seems to be the wars of our times. Multiple allusions to the phenomenon are made on five tracks, more specifically "Nature Springs", "Behind the Sun", "Green Fields", "80s Life", and "Kingdom of Doom", the last of which is an absolute standout. With bouncing, dancehall piano, eerie vocals, swelling trumpet blares and a jangling acoustic riff all seeing the light of day, "Kingdom of Doom" is agonizingly catchy: a logical choice for the first single. "Three Changes", with a foot-tapping jazz/afro-beat backbone is equally as notable and is the one and only song that truly showcases Tony Allen.
Despite the infrequent spurts of electricity, the album's closing title track collapses into an instrumental explosion, a sort of light at the end of the tunnel that's indicative of something much bigger. For if we take the messages we've been spoon-fed to heart and begin to "see everything in black and white" as Albarn says on "Kingdom of Doom", we might just be OK at the very least.
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