There was a certain quaintness to Damon Albarn’s observing a decreasingly United Kingdom – on Three Changes, some eleven years ago – coming to represent “a stroppy little island of mixed-up people.” But since the disaster that was June 23rd, 2016, and the debacles that have unravelled subsequently, it’s practically impossible to hear the aforesaid phrasing in so positive a light. For once seen as a somewhat eccentric (if still objectively “little”) country punching some way above its weight, the UK – from both the inside looking out longingly, and the outside looking in confoundedly – seems inexplicably hellbent on ransacking itself inside-out, and becoming inward- rather than forward-looking; known, if no longer renowned, for Farage as much as Faraday. And Merrie Land, the sophomore full-length by Albarn’s The Good, The Bad & The Queen, serves as a sort of 37-minute eulogy to a land loved, but lost; a rejection (if, also, a mirrored reflection) of jingoistic Brexiteers’ extremist, misguided demands for their country back. Evidence, then, that very good things can and do come from even the most egregious of events…
This, the first of three nights at Hackney’s EartH, happens to coincide with the first of five days’ volatile debate in the House of Commons, and there can be no question as to which of the two happenings is more hotly anticipated nor, to anticipate the inevitable, successful. Having reopened a mere few months ago, the erstwhile Savoy Cinema must be one of precious few London venues that Albarn has still to play, and was itself salvaged from wreckage and brought back from the brink by Auro Foxcroft & Co. earlier on in the year. It’s a quite incredible job they’ve done with the place, original Art Deco features crudely kept; the setting in perfect keeping with the deliberately rickety compositions of The Good, The Bad & The Queen. And as a “Silver Jubilee mug” – with HRH’s beaming mug emblazoned on the front – is sat atop Albarn’s piano, a string quartet surfaces, and the ebullience of Mickey Baker’s Third Man Theme abates, that aforementioned sense of anticipation palpably hums through to EartH’s core.
There may be no ranting nor monstrous raving about the ‘B-word’, perhaps so as not to sour what is a mood of genuine jubilation, but the impact (upon Albarn, at least) is transparent: he storms the stage, fists clenched firm, with the stroppy purpose of a certain Glastonbury headliner-elect during a demonic Merrie Land; rabidly beckons nonexistent dogs on the subsequent Gun to the Head, the chorus of which unapologetically harks back to Parklife’s lionised A-side. And there are references, some more thinly veiled than others, of course: “Are we green, are we pleasant?/ We are not either of those,” he’ll spit on the former, with the salivary relish of Harry Kane in one of Wembley’s many KFC knockoffs; “We’re a shaking wreck where nothing grows.” On the wistful, shuffling Nineteen Seventeen, he’ll revert to rhetoric, to question: “And where are we today?/ Dissolution,” later ruefully admonishing we “enjoy it while it lasts, ’cause soon it will be different” on the suitably crepuscular The Truce of Twilight.
Elsewhere, however, “outbreaks of optimism” are manifold, and overall, Merrie Land makes for a far more collaborative listen than its self-titled predecessor. Perhaps ironically, the musical palette from which he and his companions paint is a considerably less austere one: Paul Simonon’s trademarkedly dubby bass lines indubitably better stoke The Great Fire tonight than they might on record, Albarn’s beloved melodica amping up the invitingly bottomed-out vibe come its closing moments; Simon Tong’s coruscating guitars shimmer to the fore during both Lady Boston, with a Tender-redolent extended coda in the Côr y Penrhyn’s absence, and The Truce of Twilight which benefits from Don’t Get Lost in Heaven-ly slide; and Drifters & Trawlers is led by Tony Allen’s languid groove, skittering amidst “accredited penny whistler” Gerry Diver’s chirpy interjections. The four of them are almost like real-life Gorillaz – big characters bordering on caricature at times – with favourites differing from person to person: from the clutch of gracefully ageing punks quite literally on Simonon’s side, to those toting Blur shoulder bags or sporting Humanz varsity jackets.
Albarn remains, quite unequivocally, the main attraction; and Ribbons – beautiful, full of applaudably patriotic compassion, and completely reminiscent of something from his 2014 solo album, Everyday Robots – proves the breathless (if, unfortunately, iPhone-transfixing) highlight of the evening. “I am the morning, with flowers in my hair/ I am your son and heir,” he concludes in a tone that, although lachrymose, is never remotely saccharine. By contrast, the boorish, Windrush-referencing The Last Man to Leave is a bit like a kind of Brexit-textured excrement; the shit sandwiched between the absolute best songs on the album. Thus all the more time, effort, et cetera should be devoted to the lovelorn, if faintly optimistic The Poison Tree, during which Albarn will croon over vaguely festive tinkering: “If you’ve got dreams you keep, and you’re leaving me/ I’ll see you in the next life; I’ll set you free.”
And so concludes our journey through Merrie Land, the record made ever more alluring live and lent immense colour by the so-called ‘Demon Strings’ quartet. The contrast between this side of the interval and the other, though, is stark: for while Nature Springs has sprung life anew and Kingdom of Doom induces a boisterous singalong, during which the venue’s newly laid floorboards can be felt bending underfoot, the eponymous début lacks not only the colour, but so too the cohesion of its significantly more compelling successor. And while there were moments at which Albarn may well have been visibly left wanting that bit more from an audience still working its way through Merrie Land’s dense lyrical content, then in accordance with the History Song lyric, “If you don’t know it now, then you will do.” Or should do. For although the future of this country may be shrouded in uncertainty right now, tonight provided a source of undiluted joy in times of arduous despair.