Despite a reputation for being a spoiled, egomaniacal prat, Damon Albarn makes no apologies for his talent or his drive. Having led Brit-pop to international heights with Blur (although more elusive in America, save for the woo-hoo-ing of “Song 2″), Albarn cemented his top billing in this country, ironically, with the cartoon dance-hip-hop mash-up band, Gorillaz, proving that his name on the marquee is worth every bit as much as he knows it is everywhere else in the world.
Now, teaming up with legendary Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong, and Afro-beat drummer Tony Allen, Albarn embarks on another ego-stroking musical journey. With a half-hearted tip of the hat to Blur’s pinnacle of Englishness and possible musical zenith, Parklife, Albarn vaguely suggests with a wink that The Good, The Bad & The Queen takes up where that classic album’s laddish zeitgeist left off. Underneath the press hype, however, the only real relation to Parklife is a distant Englishness. Where Parklife celebrated London life with Graham Coxon’s brilliantly chirpy mod-guitars, retro synths, and beer-hall sing-alongs, The Good, The Bad & The Queen deliberately avoids nationalistic pride or nostalgia, opting instead for a moody treatise on discontent and disillusion with life and Labour. Albarn’s arrangements are spare and rustic, loosely related to the acoustic side of Blur’s under-appreciated, post-Graham Coxon release, Think Tank. But the dourness works if you give it time. No matter his mood, Albarn can’t stay away from hooks. Granted, they take longer to unfurl in this calculatingly monochromatic template, but the first single “Herculean” offers an affecting marriage of shuffling dub-pop and memorable moroseness. While the bleakness certainly wears thinly, the record never outstays its welcome. It’s far too short to ruin your day, and Albarn is too talented to bore you. Danger Mouse’s production seems remarkably restrained on the surface, but he’s doing some tricky stuff to achieve all that bucolic atmosphere. Whatever your opinion of Albarn’s slightly nasal yet mellifluously moving voice, his prolific songwriting, or his unchecked ego, the man knows how to make fine records.