Though he’s certainly no Bowie or Madonna, give credit to Damon Albarn for his consistent dedication to stylistic inconsistency. (Compare the diversity of his efforts to onetime chart rivals Oasis for a quick reminder of how rare a flower creative growth has become in rock.) Within the ever-changing Blur, with Gorillaz, and now in this third project — a foolishly named quartet with ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex-The Verve guitarist Simon Tong and longtime Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen, heroically produced by Danger Mouse — Albarn has found his way to intimate maturity and reassert his modernity all at once.
Considered carefully, the impression of The Good, the Bad & the Queen as some sort of stock-taking of a dystopic Britannia (which Albarn calls “a stroppy little island of mixed up people”) collapses amid the fragmentary, disconnected lyrics that touch on what could be significant themes (“hope is found in a sound” is a virtual restatement of Pete Townshend’s “Pure and Easy,” while “everyone is a submarine looking for a dream” sounds more like a rejected Hallmark card sentiment) but don’t articulate anything tangible. Likewise, the melodies are less than they appear to be: other than the stripped-down acoustic “Green Fields,” it’s hard to imagine the piano or guitar demos for these songs sounding like more than scraps or sketches.
Danger Mouse to the rescue. More than any rock album in recent memory (and hopefully that memory doesn’t extend all the way back to Eno and Talking Heads, or Roy Thomas Baker and Queen in the ’70s), this is a producer’s creation. Albarn may have organized the campaign and supplied the basic musical ingredients, but it’s Danger Mouse behind the board — splattering effects, adding textures and shaping tonal qualities — that turned simple, small-bore songs into complex, engaging three-dimensional sonic statements. Imagine Sandinista! 25 years on for a sense of the freewheeling studio playfulness at work here. “80’s Life” is ironically rendered in a ’50s idiom; “Three Changes” is a snappy dub reggae strut; “Kingdom of Doom” has a touch of Kinksiness; and the grandiose title track brings the disc to a big finish.
Albarn, if not as much as another Brit Pop icon, Jarvis Cocker, has always been a bit of the Ray Davies British chronicler in his writing. This could have been his opportunity for a serious airing of such instincts, but it isn’t. Instead, it’s a fascinating explication of how musicians and producers can collaborate to produce art. On this remarkable record, his accent tucked away and his mood distinctly somber, Albarn points a brolly in the direction of the clouds and waits for rain.