Damon Albarn finds his soul with new supergroup
Damon Albarn doesn’t half make it easy for people to dislike him. There he was, onstage at Camden’s newly refurbished Roundhouse venue with his new band (who, apparently, are “all too old to have a name”) performing this, their first album, in its entirety. But, one minute into ‘Three Changes’, he stops proceedings and loudly orders his partners in crime to “fucking focus”. A second version begins and the same thing happens. Third take, and the band – consisting of far-more-legendary-than-anyone-in-fucking-Blur Clash bassist Paul Simonon, 66-year-old afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen and no-slouch-either-having-been-in-The-Verve guitarist Simon Tong – keep their heads firmly down, so as not to further incur the wrath of their megalomaniacal leader. The good vibes now lie in tatters. Damon, sensing the atmosphere, attempts to address the situation with the pogoing-and-cartoon-gurn routine that got him through Blur’s ‘The Great Escape’ days. But it’s too late. Things have all gone a bit… well, sinister.
It’s a turn of events that perfectly encapsulates the criticisms most often levelled at the (ex?) Blur leader. Yes, he is without question one of his or any other generation’s most consistently exciting and innovative, clever and brilliant songwriters; but he’s also always been seen as the fanatically driven-rather-than-tortured perfectionist – a man ruled by head rather than heart. He’s phenomenally talented, the argument runs, but when was the last time a Damon Albarn composition made someone cry, or fall in love, or – aw, fuck it, we’re gonna have to make the comparison sooner or later – feel like they were gonna live forever? The answer, fantastically, is now.
The signs were there in lead off download-only single ‘Herculean’: an eerie, absolutely beautiful (and let’s face it, that’s not a description you could level at Gorillaz’ ‘Dirty Harry’ or ‘DARE’) Air-gone-human shuffle that is as emotional as it is musically sophisticated. “Everyone’s on the way to heaven”, mourns Damon of the post-Armageddon wasteland that surrounds him, sounding more sincere than he ever has before, backed by more moving music than ever before.
‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’, then, though billed as “a postcard from London”, is as far from a ‘Parklife’-style cor-blimey-guv’nor concept record as is possibly imaginable. Yes, it may often evoke imagery of tower blocks, trilbies and Charles Dickens, but more noteworthy is the fact that there is more soul contained within these 12 songs than in every Blur and Gorillaz record combined.
Opener ‘History Song’ sets the moody, cinematic, textured, ethereal tone, with a plucked, cheap-sounding Spanish guitar married to Simonon’s crude dub basslines (“punk” if you’re being polite; “a bit ropey” if you’re not) and Allen’s minimal tap-tap rhythms, processed to within an inch of their life by producer Danger Mouse (yeah, him again); the waltzy ‘’80s Life’ and stomping next single ‘Kingdom Of Doom’ are just as creepily addictive, not least because they sound exactly like ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’-era Blur with Paul Simonon on bass and, er, Tony Allen on drums. With Danger Mouse prod… well, you get the picture. It’s a rare example of an idea that sounds wankerishly credible on paper, but which in practice feels perfectly natural.
For all its weird beauty, this is very much Damon’s record – much more so than Gorillaz. Or indeed, Blur. Simon Tong’s guitar is tastefully atmospheric, but ultimately anonymous; Tony Allen’s drums often sound more like the work of a machine; Simonon’s clunk may have been placed deliberately high in the mix by Danger, but even at its most magically intrusive it fails to divert attention from the staggering brilliance of Damon’s melodies.
On ‘Behind The Sun’ he strains to the very tip of his range, sounding more fragile – damaged, even – than ever before; the psychedelic, Syd Barrett-esque ‘Green Fields’ could well be the best thing he’s ever written; ‘The Bunting Song’ (which, like ‘Herculean’, at times sounds uncannily like Air’s ‘Talkie Walkie’) finds him yearning for innocence and of childhood days. Yes, haters, you read that right. But then, would you ever have imagined hearing this social commentator and sometime futurist singing lines like, “Emptiness in computers bothers me/We make our own confining time” (‘A Soldier’s Tale’)? Even if they are supposedly in the third person?
If and when Damon Albarn makes a shit record, there’ll no doubt be queues round the block to lambast him. His critics’ll have to wait though, because with ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’, he’s just laid waste to their long-running last complaint (“Yeah, it’s good, but it’s not very soulful, is it?”). Damon Albarn? Yeah, he got soul.