After the high-concept pop art of Gorillaz, it’s startling to see Damon Albarn in a rock group again. But the Good, the Bad and the Queen — his shorthand description of London — isn’t Blur 2.0. What began as a solo project became something else entirely when he recorded some tracks in Nigeria with Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen; the two were later joined by Verve guitarist Simon Tong and Clash bassist Paul Simonon. But even with all the name players involved, Albarn focuses the spotlight on the songs, which are terrific.
Where Blur was often brash, these days Albarn finds himself adrift in despondency, crooning tragic melodies and longing for better days. He plays characters who “drink all day, ’cause the country’s at war” (“Kingdom of Doom”) and spend “Sundays lost in melancholy” (“History Song”) — no surprise, given the real world’s screwed-up state of affairs.
But Albarn’s mates keep him from sounding like just another whiner. Although Allen unleashes some hot snare riffs, and Simonon provides a few fat dub notes, the playing is lean and unsentimental. Producer Danger Mouse tinkers brilliantly with the music, wrapping Albarn’s voice in echo and fuzz to suggest a distant cry for help and adding electronic pings and bleeps that are strangely touching. By the time Albarn shakes off depression in the album-closing title track, he’s told a powerful tale of darkness endured and hope regained, outshining almost everything he’s done before.
On the Web: thegoodthebadandthequeen.com
>> Listen to the Good, the Bad and the Queen on Napster>> Listen to Gorillaz on Napster>> Listen to the Clash on Napster>> Listen to the Verve on Napster>> Listen to Fela Kuti & the Africa ’70 on Napster >> Listen to Blur on Napster