Opening with a quote from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and rooted in a century of English recorded music, from music hall to the Beatles and beyond, Merrie Land — the second album by the Damon Albarn–led supergroup the Good, the Bad & the Queen — is a meditation on national identity that explores how Britain began morphing from a future-forward multicultural laboratory into an island of wagon-circling EU secessionists. Though specific to England, it’s a record the U.S. and other countries might learn a lot from in late 2018.
In some ways, Merrie Land is the exact inverse of The Now Now, Albarn’s globetrotting, of-the-moment Gorillaz set from earlier this year. Merrie Land reunites the crew last convened 11 years ago for a self-titled album that took a similarly hard look in the mirror: Albarn, Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Afrobeat architect and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, and journeyman Verve guitarist Simon Tong. The sound, beautifully polyglot, is in some ways a musical refraction of post-Colonial Britain.
On the brink of Brexit, backstage before a London gig last week, Albarn and Simonon talked about the album’s Britishness, the influence of Lou Reed, and what lies ahead.
I want to ask about the writing on this album. It’s really … wordy.
Damon Albarn: Yeah, it is [laughs]. It was great fun, you know, trying to get words like that to scan. I accumulated all this stuff I’d written while visiting these slightly decaying-but-fascinating parts of England. It was a personal pilgrimage to places I’d been aware existed, but I never really thought about much. In a sense, that was what I wanted to get out of this record — I wanted it to somehow help me understand what happened with the whole Brexit movement. You know: What was that? It wasn’t just simply “we want to leave Europe.” It was far more nuanced than that. That was, in so many ways, just a distraction from what I think the referendum was really saying — which was, you know, “we’re quite an unhappy country.”
We’re living in two different countries, basically: one that is outward looking and celebrates multiculturalism, and one that’s become disillusioned with it because it’s encroached so much upon its traditional culture. And that’s “Merrie Land.” It’s very Anglo-centric in its references, but they could apply to anywhere, really — definitely America, in a sense.
That’s for sure, right about now.
Albarn: It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of the Trump years artistically in America. It should be crackin’ stuff, really! There’s no excuse for it not to be. But I think what you have to do in a situation like this is not just kind of go for the default “they’re idiots and I’m going to reveal that.” Because it’s not like that.
What I’ve realized is how emotional this whole moment in time is. I didn’t realize how hurt people felt in England. Basically, as in America, people just felt like they were being utterly, utterly ignored. And it just takes one thing — us with Brexit, and you with Trump — someone who for once starts to give a slightly different rhetoric, more sympathetic to them. They’ve been so starved of any representation, in a way. And they’ve just sort of jumped to it.
I spent a month in southern Virginia recently, trying to grasp what’s happening here.
Albarn:You know what I’m talking about then. You have to put yourself out there, otherwise you’re never gonna understand it. They’re never gonna understand you. And then we’re going to be fucked forever. I don’t want us to be fucked forever.
I’d read that your approach was partly inspired by working with Lou Reed on Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach some years ago.
Albarn: Absolutely – [I saw] that you could write stuff that worked, that had a lyrical meter to it, but that was not conscious of having to rhyme all the time. It’s changed me. I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to any other way of writing now. Just write what you’ve got to say and sing it, and don’t worry about whether it works as a verse or a chorus. That’s what he taught me. It’s amazing. I’m excited about writing words again, you know?
There’s a particular sort of British melancholy to the music. How did you as a group arrive at the sound?
Paul Simonon: It’s just part of the DNA. I would say that the weather has a lot to do with it.
Albarn: That’s the joy of working with this band — that’s just what it sounds like! The combination of [Tony’s] rhythms, Simon’s guitar, Paul’s bass and my keyboards sounds always like that, really.
Certain tracks reminded me of the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” — that organ sound.
Albarn: That’s the Lowery, a sort of iconic, classic home organ.
Were any particular artists touchstones for the album?
Albarn: The reason why we sort of formed this band in the first place was, when Paul and I first met, we discovered we both had a very deep love of traditional music hall. It’s very old-fashioned music that’s inspired us — stuff that you can only really find on 78s.
It has a sort of dusty-in-a-good-way, antique-shop quality to it.
Albarn: It’s kind of like going to a country village, and going to the village green and the sort of folk songs have got, like, strange Nigerian polyrhythms going on, and people are dancing differently. It’s English, but it’s also quite a subversion of what the “English” sound is, you know? It’s kind of acknowledging that English music is very multicultural now — the whole idea that this is a new tradition, in a sense. The music of the Caribbean, of Africa, of India, of America, all swishing around together and forming different stuff.
The sound fits the theme of the album, in a way — the idea of cultural openness vs. the closed-doors of Brexit.
Simonon: My influences came from my surrounding area where I grew up. I heard a lot of Jamaican music, and I went to school with a lot of people whose parents had come over on the Windrush to help re-build Britain [after WWII]. So I grew up in that community and I was exposed to that style of music, and it was an influence on me when I became a bass player partly because it was music where I could actually hear the bass part and play along with it — where certain other records, it was really hard to hear what the bass is doing.
Paul, you were involved with the staging and art direction for the last tour. How’d it work this time?
Simonon: Same thing again. I just sort of have an idea and a vision and put it together — it’s sort of like painting, but with people onstage. I wanted to make it look and feel very film noir, and sort of look like the end of a pier. We have a lot of piers in England, and they’re quite ghostly, in some ways — quite haunted. I saw them sort of like arms reaching out from our country to other worlds.
Yeah, that certainly fits the theme of the album, too. So how do you think this Brexit vote is going to go?
Simonon: I don’t think anybody really knows. I think it was ill-conceived in the beginning, and I don’t think anyone, including the people who are supposed to be running our country, really thought about the consequences. They actually didn’t have a plan. I don’t think any of them really knows what’s going on.
Albarn: I think they won’t vote for it — it will fail. What happens then? There’s three options really. We either literally disappear into the abyss of a hard Brexit — I don’t know what the consequences of that will be, though they sound pretty horrific — or we do what we were always kind of inevitably going to do, which is have another conversation, pose another question. Because no one, hand-to-heart, could say the first referendum was an honest answer — it was very, very, tainted and meddled with. It was dishonest, and it tricked a lot of people.
We don’t know what’s going to happen. This is the greatest constitutional crisis since the Suez, maybe. There’s a lot of people shittin’ themselves [laughs]. And I hope they’re all aware of what a mess they’ve gotten us into — unnecessarily, considering how many other really major problems we have to consider now on planet Earth. It’s just ridiculous that we’ve wasted so much energy on this.