What makes for a truly great album? How does it differentiate itself from the phenomenal number of new records released each week, let alone each year? Why do certain albums provoke such profound responses? As with so many things in life, the majority of qualitative judgements we make are grounded in the perspectives we bring to the table. If you already like certain actors in a film, characters in a novel or musicians in a band, then you’re likely to come to things in a positive frame of mind. One might argue that a general state of willing acceptance actually makes it harder for a known quantity to truly dazzle, and that can certainly be applied to a few members of this particular musical collective. The fact that I was hugely excited about this record for several months before it was finally released probably gave it a head start in my affections, but I would like to think that I’m not stupid enough to simply be swept along in a sea of publicity and expectation. Indeed, this album’s position at the top of this list is, I would imagine, a surprise to some. It certainly didn’t romp home in any of the big lists in the national newspapers or glossy music magazines. It did, however, connect with me in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. I’m useless when it comes to concentration span these days, partly because of what I consider to be the digital curse. We are so used to being able to flick about as soon as something loses our interest – be it a track on a CD, television programme or web page – that we often don’t spend very long getting to know anything in the media. Add to that the increasing amounts of available entertainment and the ease with which we can acquire something new and the competition for our few hours of unassigned brain time each day is rife. This album defied all of my recent trends and was played very regularly for all of 2007, much of 2008 and on into this final year of the decade. For several months, I played it every single day. That, I would argue, is perhaps a decent enough definition of a great album in the 21st century. Any music that can rise above the excitement of the new and stand firm in its presentation of ideas and moods deserves to be recognised. And so, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ sits atop the 40 From The Noughties list.
Paul Simonon’s dubby bass playing is crucial to the mechanics of this record and, while it is Damon Albarn’s creative genius that truly weaves together a majestic patchwork of twelve beguiling pieces of music, it sets an anxious, slightly paranoid tone to proceedings. For me, this a good starting point for looking at this record. As a statement about Britain in the early part of the 21st century it does a pretty impressive job of capturing the confusion surrounding both cultural and political aspects of everyday life. In ‘Three Changes’, Damon sings of “a stroppy little island of mixed up people” and I can’t help but identify with that notion of Britain. Political consciences were tested, cultural shifts were debated and the right wing media endeavoured to widen each and every little crack in society’s development. That one phrase says far more to me than any house brick sized Andrew Marr effort about the country I live in and for someone who is often strangely insensitive to lyrics, this record has had me hooked for some time.
It’s hard to define the sound of this record. On the one hand, it could be argued that it’s a mature indie-pop outing from Albarn and a logical progression from where he was going with Blur’s ‘Think Tank’. But, on the other, is it not a borderline schizophrenic stuttering, jagged collage of different sounds and influences, the like of which I’ve certainly never heard before? I genuinely think it sounds different to everything else around right now. I’m not saying it’s more innovative than, say, Four Tet or more deliberately challenging than Tune-Yards – both of whom produced outstanding music in recent years – but it is decidedly different from its contemporaries. Listen to the drum machine sounds at the end of ‘Northern Whale’. What is going on there? It constantly threatens to fall out of sync with the rest of the instrumentation and it never seems completely at ease. That is a trait found in many of these songs, most noticeably in the aforementioned ‘Three Changes’, which is essentially three different songs, knitted together to form something greater than the sum of its parts.
Although the album contained one radio-friendly single in ‘Kingdom Of Doom’, the first track released was ‘Herculean’, as decidedly anti-commercial a single choice as any Albarn had opted for in many a year. I remember the genuine thrill of knowing that Zane Lowe was going to be giving it a first play one evening in October 2006. I can’t say I loved it, there and then, but it had that certain indefinable something that Albarn’s work tends to have, even aspects of that ‘Monkey’ soundtrack record. As you listen to the chaotic pounding of the piano and assorted cacophonous aural destruction of the surrounding instruments in the closing moments of the album’s final, and title, track, it’s hard not to see this as the album Albarn had wanted to make for a while. He’d put himself in a position in the first half of the decade – two hugely successful Gorillaz albums and another number one album from Blur – whereby he had earned the freedom to take an unexpected turn. Surrounding himself with legendary drummer Tony Allen, Clash icon Paul Simonon and, the admittedly less awe-inspiring, Simon Tong from The Verve could well be classed as unexpected and the resultant album certainly can be. It’s hard to say what everyone thought it would sound like, and it clearly has the feel of a Damon Albarn project due to his distinctive vocals, but the slightly confused response it seemed to be met with would suggest that it didn’t win as many people over as EMI might have hoped.
Although it made a respectable showing in some end of year polls, and a few low-placed appearances in the end of the decade lists, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ seems to have drifted by without much of a fuss. I don’t think it’s particularly difficult listening and, at the same time, I don’t agree with those who suggest that it’s quite a boring listen. I simply can’t listen to this record and fathom how it could ever be classed as boring. I can hear why people might not like it – and those who have always believed Albarn to be a smug, patronising surveyor of society will be at the front of the queue there – but the notion that it might provoke little emotional response seems incomprehensible. Albarn’s insistence that the name ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ applies to the album title alone and that the band has no name of any sort, while hugely pretentious and all a little bit silly, is a reassuring suggestion that this will stand as a one-off. It was a wonderful experiment and the resultant album is a thing of rare beauty. But it feels like something which, at the risk of sounding trite, truly captured a certain time and I can’t ever imagine myself not turning to this album for genuine enjoyment. And mark that last phrase, because it’s not a comfort blanket, it’s not a record to comfort me through the bad times, it’s just a piece of brilliant music and it’s a delight to listen to it each and every time. Many will criticise Damon Albarn, but few will better him.