How to review anything by Damon Albarn and not mention Blur? Although his personal ambition and reach ultimately managed to outstrip anything they did, and they sometimes embodied the operatic grandeur that was always a part of his DNA – This Is A Low, Beetlebum, Pyongyang – Albarn’s first, and some might say greatest band, still cast a large shadow. The simple answer is that you can’t.
So how do you judge Merrie Land? This is a concept album about a Britain that still can’t seem to fashion an escape from Europe, a nightmare of its own making. And though Britpop-era Damon might have ostensibly and unfashionably trashed full implementation of the Maasricht Treaty, the dilemmas that faced the characters who peopled his songs back then back then – loneliness, confusion disenfranchisement, frustration – concern Albarn himself now. He‘s long since ditched the writing-in-third-person shtick and turned his attention to his own thoughts. It makes for occasional heavy going.
Yet out of this, Albarn fashions perhaps his finest album. I say ‘Albarn‘ but Paul Simonon, Simon Tong and as always Tony Allen provide a deftness of touch that means it’s always affecting and not pitying or pithy. England and its attendant bad dream is everywhere – the ‘holy blissful martyr’ of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales who is supposed to help pilgrims in their hour of need; Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night – an Ealing horror film; The Great Fire of London. Tony Visconti makes these songs, this English folk music, sound frequently transcendent.
The title track is almost perfect, Albarn and Simonon ad-libbing after a verbal slip-up. Tellingly, it’s this take that they’ve kept. “You are the ones who…put the money in the pockets of the few who crowd the school benches,” sings Albarn, taking aim at the Establishment who‘ve let us all down, in England and abroad. Lady Boston has a Welsh choir and a maudlin (“where does she go now, and where will she carry me?”) that suits the stasis. Potty as it might sound, Ribbons, about Morris dancers, is impossibly beautiful, and The Poison Tree invokes William Blake.
When the ravens leave the Tower, England must fall, so the old saying goes. The quandary contained in Merrie Land is how to reconnect with the best parts of an Empire that did die, and left in its place a scared, confused polity who voted for something they never truly understood. Modern life is rubbish indeed.