Thirteen years after Blur released Parklife, frontman Damon Albarn finally has its natural successor: a quintessentially English pop record. Truthfully, anything else would have been an awful waste of talent. Albarn’s latest stooges include ex-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen, and former Verve guitarist Simon Tong. There’s also producer Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, who does a predictably masterful job of framing the essence of his subjects instead of pissing in a circle around them. The music, however lean, is the most poignant vision Albarn’s devout Anglo-centrism has offered: a beautifully dark, boozy, overcast dream of London, cinematic in its scope and careful in its craft. Like all dreams, the meaning is in the details: the kinky slackness of Simonon’s bass, the muted exoticism (however underemployed) of Allen’s drums, the echoey fuzz of the vocals, and the electronic sounds that skip, scuttle, and blip mischievously within otherwise cheekily formal rock structures.
Mainly, though, it’s Albarn’s innocent melodies that do the job, gleaming through the album’s pervasive fog to lend his London its bittersweetness. While the singer’s heavy ironies have often left his characters feeling hollow and detached, hollowness and detachment are kind of the point here. They don’t just characterize the working-class lifestyles that dominate his writing, they make the nostalgic sounds of the Britpop canon he’s always trying to evoke seem all the more spectral and ghostly—howling out of pubs and alleyways, and blowing through the patched coats of his shiftless, bombed-out proles. If the Arctic Monkeys’ debut captured the cool nihilism of a new British youth, leave it to a wiser genre-mining Anglophile to show the brats what bleakness really is.