Sunday, 15 September 2019

The Last Man to Leave

Thoughts on the album "Merrie Land" by The Good The Bad and The Queen
Originally written in December 2018

Although unlikely to garner much attention during next year's award season, one of my absolute favourite on-screen performances this year is Damon Albarn's beguiling turn as the ventriloquist dummy that appears in all ten promotional videos released in support of Merrie Land (2018): the second and very much long-awaited new album from Albarn's non-Blur, non-Gorrilaz side-project, The Good The Bad and The Queen.

As a more-than-worthy follow-up to the band's brilliant, self-titled 2007 debut, this second release continues the same approach of exploring the vague notions of "British identity" against a diverse musical soundscape, while at the same time presenting a wry but evocative commentary on the modern cultural landscape, its politics and the general mood of the day.

If the first album took as its focus the growing surveillance state of New Labour's "broken" Britain - still caught within the grip of post-7/7 terrorism, the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the climate of economic excess that would inevitably lead to the financial collapse of the following year - then Merrie Land finds its obvious target in the disastrous Brexit situation.

By focusing specifically on the fallout from Brexit - with every element of the album, from its music and lyrics, to its song-titles and packaging managing to evoke the current zeitgeist of confusion, fear and cultural disagreement - Albarn and company have succeeded in producing not just a 'complete work', in the artistic sense, but a genuine statement.

The Truce of Twilight (Performance Video) [Paul Simonon, 2019]:

Beginning with the first track, a short piece of dialog sampled from the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger masterpiece A Canterbury Tale (1944), the album establishes a context of old English parochialism: that "martyr's dream" of an Arcadian idyll, all stiff-upper lipped determination, quaint village greens and cathedrals heralding the glories of God. From this point on, the subsequent ten songs offer a clear thread of wry observational commentary backed by engaging instrumentation, as the ensuing album traverses the outer reaches of the British landscape; from the cities and their surrounding suburbs, to the quiet villages and once-thriving coastal towns.

The ten videos produced to accompany the majority of songs taken from the album find Albarn buried beneath layers of intricate prosthetics to become the ventriloquist dummy. In each of the videos he sits in front of  an intentionally flat, two-dimensional green-screen backdrop, which changes from one song to the next in order to better present a specific mood, character or emotion.

Each persona, while uniform and unchanging, captures a different facet of the British "identity" (though the term itself is a misnomer: there is no one cultural identity definable as British, but countless different identities, all of them "British", all of them occupying the same plot of land.) However we chose to identify ourselves, personally or politically - whether we voted to 'leave' or 'remain', or didn't vote at all, whichever the case may be - the dummy here is us.

2. Merrie Land

3. Gun to Head

4. Nineteen Seventeen

5. The Great Fire

6. Lady Boston

7. Drifters and Trawlers

8. The Truce of Twilight

9. Ribbons

10. The Last Man to Leave

11. The Pioson Tree

The appearance of the dummy itself is inspired by a segment from the Ealing Studios anthology film Dead of Night (1945). The segment, titled The Ventriloquist's Dummy, sees the titular object develop a mind of its own, terrorising its master who can no longer control its amoral urges. Or does it? Is the dummy really possessed, or is the ventriloquist simply losing his grip on reality? Significantly, a still image from the film also features as part of the album's artwork.

Merrie Land [The Good The Bad and The Queen, 2018]:

In the presentation of the dummy, Albarn finds the perfect symbol for Brexit, if not Britain itself. This thing that has somehow gotten away from its own master, saying and doing appalling things without punishment, and destroying the psyche of the individual that can who can no longer control it.

Merrie Land combines the same musical influences of The Good The Bad and The Queen's first album, chiefly folk, ska and dub, but adds an element of music hall. In interviews accompanying the album's release, Albarn said he was influenced by the Northern English town of Blackpool. Fittingly, the music here has the feel of faded seaside glamour, empty funfairs and a world where the last bastions of "Englishness" (fish and chips, novelty postcards, cups of tea) struggle to remain relevant.