Damon Albarn is one of the brightest and busiest men in music, releasing albums with his original Brit Pop pioneers Blur, with his alternative electro indie animated group Gorillaz, releasing a solid solo album a few years back, and for the second time, releasing an album with his second side project, The Good, the Bad & the Queen.
The group, which also features Paul Simonon (of The Clash) Simon Tong and Tony Allen, makes no beefs about its extremely anglo-centric lyrics, focusing on Britain; its government, its people, and the country as an idea. And it’s not simply the thematic elements which are clogging up Albarn’s brain; there is a deluge of complex musical inspirations flooding Merrie Land that are inspiring, but often overwhelming.
Many of the tracks flow with classical orchestration, but are offset by plodding children’s instruments. Recorders, bassoons, organs and violins are some of the instruments incorporated to elevate the songs on Merrie Land beyond their britpop roots, such as on the melancholy title track which bids farewell to the EU, but more often they simply make the tunes off-kilter (the wailing “The Great Fire”) or off-putting (the unsettling “Nineteen Seventeen”).
While one can glean elements of glee in the Blur-like gang singalong of “Gun to the Head”, the lyrics don’t allow for easy interpretation. If not for interviews given about the album’s themes, it would be fair to guess that Albarn was simply doing off-the-cuff poetic improv over the band’s musical creations, as he often seems to be trying desperately hard to fit his vocal melodies into these complex arrangements. He inputs lines like “alcoholism disguised with a balloon or two” and “I am a maple, dancing in the sun” as if they were as relatable as “I love you”, but he is not begging to be understood, and some listeners may find it more rewarding to figure out what Albarn is talking about on their own.
It need be said there are some quality moments here; the backing choir on “Lady Boston” gives the piano ballad a classically epic sheen, and the sunny harmonies on the acoustic “Ribbons” are perfectly inviting. These songs feel more like palette cleansers though, for tracks like the intense “Last Man to Leave” (which is more of a narrated radio play than a song), where Albarn knows he’s likely indulging his own interests past his audience’s good graces.
There is no deny Albarn is a musical genius, but the problem this has is the only way he seems to be able to rid himself of the boredom of typical rock/pop songwriting is to stretch himself into musical arenas that are sometimes left untouched for a reason. While the songs on here are certainly interesting and adventurous, attempting a deep listening to the album can be tiring, and you’ll find yourself quoting “Drifters & Trawlers”, “Sweet lord, I’ve done enough today.”