A DOOM OF HIS OWN: The brokenhearted London-ness is amplified by Albarn’s wandering, Parisian sense of melody.
Damon Albarn — Blur frontman, Gorillaz supremo, and now millennial minstrel to the drowning city of London — is that eerie modern specimen, the pop star who talks like a critic. I’m sure he doesn’t think like a critic; it’s quite impossible to move millions of units while thinking like a critic. But he certainly does talk like one. In 1995, when the BBC was making a program called Britpop Now, Albarn “suggested to the show’s producers,” as John Harris writes in his book The Last Party, “that he might take the role of presenter.” The producers were delighted with the idea, and Albarn duly wrote and performed an introduction that — apart from a single, intrusive “we” — could have been taken verbatim from a moderately insightful potboiler band biography: “Three years ago in the spring of 1992 Blur had embarked on their second tour of America. We’d been there the previous autumn and had been very well received, but this time it was very different. In short, Nirvana, Nirvana — everywhere Nirvana.”
Pop stars, unless they’re David Bowie, do not talk like that. The great Blur/Oasis showdown that was in full swing even as Albarn rehearsed his lines for Britpop Now was a battle, when you got right down to it, between a man happy to contemplate his band in the third person and another man — Liam Gallagher — who seemed incapable of escaping the first, who didn’t use phrases like “in short” but stood on tables in pubs and shouted about getting into a fight with the Beatles. As he famously boasted, “I had a dream where I drop-kicked him in the throat, George, and smashed McCartney from here to Jupiter and back. He didn’t have his seatbelt on. My name is disturbance!” It was Liam’s devouring, one-eyed ego, teetering over the huge rehashed chords and the rhythm section that sounded as if it would fall off the edge of the world if it stopped playing in 4/4, that drove Oasis into pop greatness. Albarn, condemned to be self-aware, would have to work a little harder.
And work he did, prodigiously. He swerved, dabbled, collaborated, brainstormed. He magpied and gadfly’d. He went to Africa and made Mali Music (Astralwerks) with Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate, and Ko Kan Ko Sata Doumbia. He wrote a film score (Ravenous) with Michael Nyman. In a mind meld with fellow conceptualizer Jamie Hewlett he dreamed up a virtual pop act — Gorillaz — and had some huge non-virtual hits. He is currently working on a “circus opera” that takes its theme from a Chinese legend. (Forty-five acrobats and a Shaolin choir are said to be involved in its performance.) And now he gives us The Good, the Bad & the Queen (Virgin), a project in which the various talents of Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Gnarls Barkley’s DJ Danger Mouse, and the Verve’s Simon Tong are unified under the sign of a falling-to-bits kingdom, England in her waning. Gasworks, dark canals. Songs about pub dread and whales dying in the Thames, all performed in the arch, resigned croon of an end-times Ray Davies.
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.