In the wake of the EU Referendum, Damon Albarn decided to travel around Britain to get a sense of a nation plunged into dramatic change. After reconvening with his The Good, the Bad & the Queen bandmates—Paul Simonon, Tony Allen, and Simon Tong—those meditative journeys fed into their second album, Merrie Land. It’s an impressionistic portrait of a conflicted, confused land, with funfair organs, choirs, and tugging melodies folded into eerie but beautiful blends of folk, dub, and pop. Albarn talks Apple Music through his pilgrimage and the “strange emotions” that inform the album.
It’s hard not to feel real sadness listening to this record. Is that the point? I think so, maybe, but I think it’s, if you could call something this, a beautiful sadness. I don’t know what that kind of means.
On the title track, you sing, “This is not rhetoric/It comes from my heart/I love this country.” This record is trying to not be angry or bitter or take sides, right? No, no, no, I’m not trying to break the family up. I’m trying to be honest and deal with those strange emotions, like love of place. Even though I’ve traveled, it’s fair to say, around the whole world, I always come back home. What’s driven me as a creative person to explore other climes and cultures is what I grew up with in this country. That was what’s special about this country: the sense of openness. That’s what we’re missing with all this hastiness to get stuff done because we decided we had to get it done by this point. That’s all I feel.
You visited various parts of Britain to get a sense of the nation, going beyond the big cities to towns, including ones from British folk tales such as Banbury. Is this record your pilgrimage? I’d never been to St. Albans or Luton or Banbury. I hadn’t even really been to Oxford. There were things I was very aware of—big cultural landmarks—that I’d never visited. So, in that sense, pilgrimage is a good description. I found ghosts everywhere. Merrie Land is a ghostly record. You just have to tune into the dissonance and the resonance in each place and work from there, especially if we’re going to try and give an impression.
The songs take us from train rides past World War I cemeteries in France to heavy nights in Blackpool pubs. You’ve packed a lot in here. Yeah! I’ve never written so many lyrics, so that was a breakthrough for me. It’s something I’d like to explore—more words. I suppose it goes back to Jack Kerouac. Back to Betjeman on the train, it’s got a strong sense of kinship with that, and people like Patrick Hamilton and George Orwell.
Three weeks before the release of Merrie Land you were still on tour with Gorillaz. How easy is it to switch between bands? I just love making music, so it’s not that difficult. I had a strange four days: I finished the massive, euphoric gig in Mexico City [with Gorillaz] and then came back to a little room [in the UK] to rehearse for eight hours and go on national television. The only thing I regret is that we didn’t have a “work in progress” sign hanging over the microphone stand. Or cones and tape round us. We should’ve been wearing hi-vis jackets: “We haven’t quite built this place yet, but we’re definitely working at it.”