The Good, The Bad and The Queen

The Good, The Bad & The Queen

(EMI/Parlophone; 2007)

By Eric Sams | 8 September 2007

This review is being turned in late. The main reason for this delinquency is that I'm a lazy git, but its tardiness was not unaffected by the fact that The Good, The Bad, & The Queen is a bit of a tricky bastard to pin down. The newest project from former Blur frontman (and former Gorillaz frontcartoonmonkey) is simultaneously reminiscent of his previous work, and somehow wholly removed. To wit: there's no trace of Blur's post-Bowie guitar pomp, nor an echo of the Gorillaz' studio tomfoolery. It is a decidedly less raucous effort than either of Albarn's previous flagships. It has none of the pock-marked joie de vivre of Blur, nor are we treated to a third fluorescent helping of the leering, urbane silliness of the Gorillaz. The Good, The Bad, & The Queen is Albarn's most consistently toned-down album under any major heading, a feat which he manages to bring off without conveying the impression that he is tethering anything back. It's quiet, but it's not morose. It's lively, but there isn't a hint of confection. It's low key, but quite complex.

You can always tell that someone is treading water when they start to express themselves in negatives.

But that's what I mean. I was on the verge of just calling this a "mature effort" from an erstwhile Britpop icon and going back to staring plaintively out the window when it struck me: Blur wasn't that easy to classify. The popularity of "Song 2" made them seem deceptively alt-rock but if you listened to "Coffee and TV" next to "Morrocan People's Revolutionary Bowls Club" you wouldn't have a Blue's Clue what the fuck was going on. Nor, really, were the Gorillaz that easy of a call. Sure, it was easy to pass them off as Albarn's pressure release valve -- the way the rest of us scream at our pets -- until you take into account that each Gorillaz album had a well-structured, catchy, and monstrously successful radio hit. The band was a cartoon, but the units they moved were real.

So maybe it is Albarn himself, then, that resists simple classification. Maybe it's the fact that he's a consummate collaborator. The Good, The Bad, & The Queen is, after all, a more credible supergroup than Audioslave and Velvet Revolver combined, boasting some Verve, some Afro-beat, and some fucking Clash. I mean, I haven't done the research on this, but Albarn may be the only dude to work with a member of the Clash and Del tha Funkee Homosapien in the same decade. Perhaps Albarn's chameleonic yet cohesive aesthetic is not a mystery at all; perhaps it is the product of a talent pliable enough to incorporate input but stout enough to be discerned through whatever genre it finds itself enmeshed in.

The opening piano chip-chop of "'80's Life" reminds me of the Dears' "She's Well Aware" until an earnest and shimmering synth line vibrates through the melody like a whale call. The layered production is bolstered here and throughout the album by deft, skittering drum lines that segment the more ambient, unfocused moments into manageable asides, while patiently nudging the overarching melodies forward. The drum kit is not a background instrument on this record, nor is its importance merely structural. Allen lends an indispensable quality of casual swagger to these tracks. The relaxed jazz beat underneath washes of cymbal toward the end of "Three Changes" is the highlight of an otherwise self-important song.

"Northern Whale" promises a Gorillaz romp, all buzzing keyboards and finger snaps, before the cooing choir fades up near the chorus, subduing the song into something more pensive than anything on a Gorillaz record. If anything, that's the trick here: each time the listener pegs it with one of Albarn's past sounds, the track subverts and confounds the expectation. The listener is never wrong in comparing this to past Albarn efforts, but then, the listener is never exactly right, either. Example: "It's kinda like slower Blur, but the arrangements are much more active." I could write another 1,000 words and not deviate from this sentence structure: "It's like ___, but not, because ___." Shunning temptation, I will not write those 1,000 words.

One thing I can say conclusively is that the process of listening to and enjoying this album is not a fraction as frustrating as trying to write about it. The game of "spot-the-influence," of pinning certain moments to certain members, is a wearying and ultimately pointless endeavor, but it's an inevitable one. This is the cross supergroups bear, I suppose. The Good, The Bad & The Queen may seem a bit muddled on the first couple listens, but it's a grower. There's a lot going on here, but, impressively for a record of such pedigree, it doesn't aim to change your life. Albarn's goal here is a Saturday afternoon record. A throw-it-on-while-you-study record. This is a change of pace that can be disorienting, but the album ultimately rewards patient listeners. But enough of my flaccid prose and waffling ineptitude. This review, as I've confided, is late. And I've got some pets to go scream at.