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Damon Albarn Keeps It International with “Merrie Land”

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Ringo Starr and Roger Daltrey may have celebrated Brexit but Damon Albarn, a generation younger, has a decidedly opposing view. A self-proclaimed internationalist, Albarn has often crafted Britpop with his tongue in cheek even as his comrades sometimes boasted with national bravado. Set to share the stage with the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians at the 2016 Glastonbury Festival, Albarn admitted to The Guardian, “If I’d had any idea that we were going to act as a people in the way that we have – prior and post – I would definitely have come back a lot earlier, if you know what I mean. As a person who loves their country, I would have expressed a very strong opinion. In public.” That opinion is not to be censored here, a point made very clear on the cover of his latest album Merrie Land which slyly features Michael Redgrave muffling a ventriloquist dummy in the 1945 horror movie Dead of Night. (Ventriloquist dolls have become a staple of the band’s videos.)

Albarn’s previous related release The Good, the Bad and the Queen was a magnificent drama about London and though this sequel doesn’t quite measure up, it broadens the musical palette of Albarn and his cohorts Simon Tong, Tony Allen and Paul Simonon. If all these names sound familiar, there’s a reason: Albarn fronted Blur then Gorillaz; guitarist Tong cut his teeth with the neo-psychedelic unit The Verve; drummer Allen is an exemplar of Afrobeat music, and bassist Simonon is the one responsible for bringing a reggae feel to The Clash.

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All this talent comes into play on a song like “Gun to the Head” which showcases the eminent rhythm section with elaborately changing time signatures under Albarn’s vocals about conspiracies that tear people apart. The result is one of the finest homages to The Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” since the glory days of The Rutles. “Nineteen Seventeen” continues Albarn and company’s stereoscopic sound with tasteful work from Tong and more colossal drumming from Allen while “The Great Fire” is practically a sonic kaleidoscope of ‘60s influences, even as it reflects the generational divide.

Lyrically, Merrie Land’s politics might be heavy-handed for some but before you turn away, you should know that the band members lock into this music with spray and seduction. Allen cheekily told The Guardian, “this time around, people can dance.” He’s not joking. There is a focus on the groove that makes Merrie Land pretty irresistible. “Lady Boston” swings upright, Albarn’s pretty piano leading Tong’s jazzy guitar work. (Substituting for Blur guitarist Graham Coxon in 2003, Tong knows how to accompany Albarn with the contradiction he needs.) The appealing ”Ribbons” features folk guitar worthy of Baez and Garfunkel.

Simonon, who was so unforgettable on The Clash’s biting “The Guns of Brixton,” brings astute harmony to the shanty “Drifters & Trawlers” while his opening notes for “The Truce of Twilight” are pleasantly reminiscent of Sting’s work with The Police. Behind them all, the 78-year-old Allen proves the most consistently impressive artist. There’s a master class of percussive brilliance here for those willing to take it.

If you just want a sample then check out “The Poison Tree,” a beguiling ballad that sounds like a companion piece for “No Distance Left to Run” with which it shares a lot of heartbeat and sorrow. While much of the album’s lyrics are ambitiously packed with meaning, “The Poison Tree” sticks to matters of the heart and ends up one of the strongest songs that Albarn has yet written. As visceral as much of Merrie Land, “The Poison Tree” manages to delve into emotional depths that many of us look to music for.

-Eoghan Lyng

Photo Credit: Damon Albarn – the British musician and singer as well as musical head of the bands Blur, Gorillaz and the project The Good, the Bad & the Queen at a concert in Hamburg, Grosse Freiheit 36 (Photo by JazzArchivHamburg / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

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