Taxonomical Irritations

January 12, 2008 at 11:02 pm (Music)

The Good, the Bad, and the Queen

The title above is of an album. There is no band name, but contributing musicians are Damon Albarn (Blur & Gorillaz), Paul Simonon (The Clash Bassist), Simon Tong (The Verve Guitarist), and Tony Allen (Afrobeat Innovator and Generally Astounding Percussionist). The goal here is to create music free from anxieties over who produced it. Some would feel it’s pretentious to assume that the music has worth without knowing its creators.

Luckily, it isn’t because the music is so mysteriously sui generis: It doesn’t sound like anything you’d be expecting, and hurts anyone for trying to pin these four versatile artists into a unified aesthetic. I first approached it as another one of Albarn’s side projects with guests attached. Its monotone, leisurely pace and the lack of Tony Allen’s presence disappointed me.

The thing was that I knew what I wanted. That’s the problem with names.

An odd thing happens when you give something a name. It doesn’t have to run in similar circles. Its identity is an arbitrary praenomen instead of its past: there’s no anxiety over authentically being itself (the reason why an identity is necessary would be lame pontifications from me right now: Suffice to say that history and consciousness intersect in ways unthinkable before simulacra and imitations necessitated the Turing Test, but the alluring identity crisis has existed before then, even). You only need to hear Demon Days and The Good, The Bad, and The Queen to witness appellation anxieties. Demon Days springs from an energetic beat and Albarn’s vocals into an aural phantasmagoria, and The Good, The Bad, and The Queen starts from a disparate collection of innocuous piano chords or , but all songs meld together as depressing walks down. It’s clear that everyone involved wants to do something different, but the problem, halfway through each song, is that they do.

Not all songs are inchoate ideas intersected by formulas, though. “The Good, The Bad, and the Queen,” is a marvelous traipse through a wispy melody and subdued percussion exploding into a cacophony, those great moments where the recording equipment fails and you just know that the music was so much crazier in person, and ends the album beautifully, and its opener hints at a musical dalliance before drowning its music in a curtain of languidity.

I said earlier that the concept of the album (although its concept is not pervasive enough to make it a concept album) is pretentious, and it is. Normally those albums need stirring music to overcome pretension, but this one succeeds by its sheer courage and intriguing musical concepts. If Albarn could mask every participant and present this music in your headphones after you’ve been reading late at night and your album ran out of songs, this would probably be a shock, and not just in its invasion of privacy: It’s a miracle of collaboration where disparate musical identities more known for their participation and innovation than artistic motivation gather and produce flabby, flaccid music: Golgo 13 and David Bowie could eat Albarn and co. for breakfast.

All said, this album is a failure, but one where intent is laid clear and its execution betrays foundational mistakes. Things need names sometimes.

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