FEATURE: Blur at Twenty

FEATURE:

 

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Blur at Twenty

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MOST band do not really make huge changes…

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on their fifth album. In fact, a lot of bands, mainstream and new, do not get to the fifth–album stage. For Britpop legends Blur, the transformative epiphany resulted in a decade-defining record – their stunning eponymous album. Befitting of the title, it remains their most personal and focused album: less character-driven than previous efforts. That is not to say the 1997 album misses the excitement, fun and rousing choruses of their best work – there is more depth and musical endeavour throughout Blur. To get an idea of how important Blur is; we must take a look back at their previous album, The Great Escape. If Parklife, to many at least, is the band’s finest record: The Great Escape faced some critical divide. Never to the extent of their debut, Leisure – an album that, in retrospect, is a lot more majestic and important than critics recognised back then. The Great Escape – released in September 1995 – did get some positive reviews and was triple-platinum in the U.K. U.S. audiences bonded with the album and its themes – although the album charted pretty low upon its release. If the title does not provoke a list of the hits we are all familiar with – you can all rattle off Parklife’s key songs – a few bars of each bring it all flooding back in. Country House, derided by some; celebrated by others, is the most immediate and catchy song from the album. Charmless Man is Blur at their observational best while The Universal, complete with its Clockwork Orange-referencing video, is a dreamy, languid beauty. Country House was the first Blur song to hit the U.K. charts top-spot: an infectious and earworm-y song that beat Oasis’ Roll with It in the big Britpop battle in 1995. In a lot of ways, The Great Escape possessed a lot of Parklife’s fertile genes: the mix of tragedy, heartbreak and humour; a healthy amount of instant tunes and slow-burning growers; some perfect Pop moments and a band at the height of their power.

Following Parklife – the euphoria and attention it received – many bands would feel fearful and struggle to cope with the pressure. Not only did Blur follow the album up within a year but managed to create a record as inventive, Blur-esque and British – although The Great Escape did not get quite the same reviews and accolades as its forefather. Some critics, and why I am keen to preface Blur’s creation, noted how there was emotional detachment and stiffness on the album: the humour and jollity was a little shallow; masking, perhaps, a personal-shaped hole that could have been filled with mature revelation and exorcised demons. To be fair, the band created an album perfect for the Britpop age. Not only were they battling the mighty Oasis – any songwriting weakness or huge shifts would have seen the Manchester boys scoop the crown – but a host of ‘outsiders’ in the Britpop movement, Radiohead among them, were putting out some phenomenal material. Blur were playing on their strengths: fun and witty bangers with plenty of emotion and semi-orchestral swoon. Perhaps, four albums in at this point, there was a yearning for a new Blur: a 2.0 rebuild that would retain the quality and quantity (of tunes) but shift their music in a forward-looking direction.  Although The Great Escape gained huge buzz at the time – perhaps critics intoxicated by the Britpop rivalry and optimistic spirit in the air – the flocks soon started heading Oasis’ way. (What’s the Story?) Morning Glory was released the same year and, naturally, was seriously alluring – many critics considered apologia (a bit keen to reward a five-star review to Blur); guilty they were a bit eager and swept up. If The Great Escape had Country House, Charmless Man and The Universal: (What’s the Story?)’ had Wonderwall, Some Might Say and Champagne Supernova – I am always in the Blur camp but can tell the latter’s set of songs is stronger and more nuanced than Blur’s. The only reason Oasis lost the chart battle in 1995 was the fact they put up the wrong song to tackle Country House – any, stronger, song from the L.P. would have walked it.

Regardless, changes had to be made in Camp Blur. The boys were riding high after Parklife’s enormous success but failed to progress significantly on their fourth album. If critics were ruefully printing retraction letters in 1995 – The Great Escape less inspired than Oasis’ near-masterpiece – 1997 would change everything. Both Oasis and Blur followed each other’s progress closely: they each released an album in 1994 (Oasis: Definitely Maybe; Blur: Parklife) and 1995. By 1997, both bands were making big statements for different reasons. For Blur, they needed to prove they were still one of the world’s best bands and capable of genuine invention and wonder. Oasis, huge critical acclaim buzzing in their ear, had to keep the momentum going after a terrific sophomore record. Oasis created a rather bloated, indulgent ‘cocaine album’ with 1997’s Be Here Now. It’s unedited, unfocused nature – many songs going on endlessly and losing traction – and (comparative) lack of anthems shocked critics and proved Oasis were mortal and fallible. Blur, conversely, made a genuine move forward with their eponymous album.  The Great Escape is a bit nuts and juvenile; it has flaws but it has gained a lot of retrospective support – even if Damon Albarn finds it messy and below-average. So what changed between 1995 and 1997? Graham Coxon suggested the band engage in a stylistic shift. Previous albums, Parklife and The Great Escape especially, were engaged in the celebration of Brutishness and our isles – eschewing American tastes largely.  Albarn’s wit and personality is all over The Great Escape: Blur finds Coxon granted the keys to the car and allowed a greater hand in the creative process. Recorded in London and Reykjavik; the guys started listening to U.S. bands like Pavement – leading to a set of songs more aggressive, electric and American. Stephen Street, producer of the album, noted (in interviews following the album’s release) how Albarn started writing more personal lyrics. Gone, but not entirely, were the odd British characters: in their place was a young musician undergoing a tough time.

Reluctance from the record label – this new approach would alienate teenage fans and create divisions – the album went on to become one of Blur’s most-acclaimed and consistent albums since their inception. The move to towards a more American sound was no last-gasp manoeuvre for survival or cynical marketing ploy – the band knew they had to grow from Britpop and embrace what was happening around them. Britpop had its moment and was a hugely important era of music: by 1997, the party was winding down and American artists were becoming more popular and prominent in Britain. Blur, often seen as insincere middle-class boys compared to Oasis’ working-class heroes’ mantle, changed their game and reaped the rewards. Between 1995 and Blur’s release, Damon Albarn enjoyed (is that the right word?!) a period of criticism – seen as a bit of a loser. Blur were no longer the spokespeople of British music: they had been embarrassed by Oasis and were struggling for direction. Albarn was gripped by depression while the band themselves almost split because of tensions and disillusionment. Odd performances – including an Italian T.V. appearance that replaced some of the band members with cardboard cut-outs – and substance issues (Coxon drinking heavily) threatened to ruin the bands. It was, ironically, Coxon’s interest in American guitar bands that gave Blur a new lease of life – realising those types of groups were making very interesting music. Albarn, in typically modest mood, recognised he could not simply bang out piano-led observational gems. Going to Street, Albarn proposed a more lo-fi, stripped-down sound for their next record. Previously, Albarn had transposed himself with make-believe characters in songs like Tracy Jacks: Blur was the first-person record the guys knew they had to make. No more fantasy and quirky British witticism – they had to get serious and get the critical vote back. You’re So Great was Coxon’s first co-write – he sang lead vocals too – but would not be his only (13 and Think Tank contained more Coxon songwriting involvement).

Whether you see Blur’s fifth album as a punchy, harder version of Britpop – or a fostering of U.S. guitar bands like Pavement – you cannot deny the quality and imperiousness that runs through its veins. Yes, the humour and observations remained (Death of a Party and Essex Dogs not a million miles from their earlier work) but here there was more personality and soul-baring. Beetlebum – with its Beatles-esque nods and epic status – looked at Albarn’s heroine addiction of the time with his then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann (Elastica). The song is sleepy, sexy and cooing: muscular guitars and heavy hearts trade with a typically rousing, sticks-in-the-head chorus. The drug-referencing title – “chasing the beetle” is when a user inhales smoke from a heated heroin, morphine or opium – is one of the album’s standouts. Song 2, all sub-two-minutes or if contains that now-legendary “woo-hoo!” Albarn chorus – Coxon’s introduction and shredding at its most brilliant and fearless. So many different influences went into Blur. The Kinks’ Garage-Pop best can be detected in Movin’ On and M.O.R. whereas The Beatles’ harmonies (Because and The Word especially) make themselves heard in Beetlebum and Look Inside America; one-off Punk outcasts (Chinese Bombs) and old-school Blur sing-along (On Your Own) make it a rich and veritable banquet for the senses. I love the underrated Death of a Party: its chugging festival-ride chorus and vivid, outcast imagery. Essex Dogs is dark, shifting shadowy swansong; Country Sad Ballad Man could easily have been included on Parklife – some of the Space-Rock quirkiness from Parklife continues in Theme from Retro and I’m Just a Killer for Your Love.

Critics were back – some felt cold but most were swayed – and impressed by an about-face and stunning recovery from a band on the precipice of liquidation. The American influence is strong yet many felt the album’s highlights had British skin and sensibilities – On Your Own and Beetlebum particular lauded. In spite of the chaos and uncertainty in the band after The Great Escape: Blur is a throughout, focused and knowledgeable distillation of the contemporary (1997) U.S. Rock/Garage scene; the same way Parklife perfectly brought together the best British music of the past three decades. Blur were accepting American contemporaries (Look Inside America is Albarn realising the nation, and its music, is not so bad after all) and all the better for it. Being Blur, there is no let-up in the eclecticism and far-reaching blend of sounds. They were never going to hone their panoramic visions or ‘singularise’ in terms of genres. In a great way, Blur retains all the best sides of their previous albums – the celebratory, spirited choruses and big, British anthems – with open-hearted revelations and incredible, detailed songwriting. The band, rejuvenated and renewed by fresh inspiration created an album of brilliance and defiance. Some critics were not completely sold but, like all great albums, Blur has gained some retrospective pardoning and apology from many.

I have provided the background, statistics and reviews of the album without personalising this piece – allow me to retort and focus. Blur is no longer a teenager (its twentieth birthday was yesterday) but still retains its sense of youthfulness and energy. It is an album that ages incredibly well but still reveals hidden meaning and depths. Some of the songs I did not bond with back then – Essex Dogs and M.O.R. – are starting to make their impact know. Those that were instant classics – Song 2, Beetlebum and On Your Own, among others – still sound brilliant and put me in a better mood. It is rather sobering when you think Blur came out twenty years ago. It makes me feel quite old but, in a positive way, shows just how enduring and impressive albums from that time were. If I had to do a league table of Blur albums, the bottom three spots, in no particular order, would have The Magic Whip, 13 and Leisure in there. Parklife and The Great Escape would be in the running: I figure Modern Life is Rubbish would be in the top-four places too. For me, Blur is the king because of its unlikeliness. In the same way few expected Radiohead to create anything memory after their debut, Pablo Honey (instead, they gave us the sublime The Bends); many figured Blur had reached a critical and creative cul-de-sac.

It is good finding any band that faces potential stagnation and extinction, but instead of crumbling and splitting up, they had a rethink and took in new influence. Today, we hear bands strain after a few albums and deciding the best thing to do is part company. Whilst we do not have the quality of music there was in the 1990s – not even close – or a (positive) national jingoism; that is not to say deflated bands cannot regain their initial enthusiasm and passion. Take in new bands and embrace new cultures: dispense the old way of working and go back to the drawing board. Blur showed what happens when you do that. The fact they are still together today can be traced back to that moment following The Great Escape. The boys knew things were going in the wrong direction and overhaul the Damon Albarn hegemony. Graham Coxon’s transatlantic foresight gave the band the spark they needed to grow and evolve. Even though Blur failed to match the scope and quality after their fifth album; they provided the music world an incredible record. It has just been celebrated on BBC Radio 6 Music – they commemorated its twentieth and played tracks from the album – and stands as one of the finest albums from the 1990s. As it is cold, sleety and generally dreadful out there: take an hour to revisit a classic album that is strangely intoxicating and inescapable. Once you hear the first (scratchy) riffs of Beetlebum you are, ironically and appropriately, hooked and drugged. By the time you get to Coxon’s You’re So Great – the mid-way point – we have gone through Fugazi-referencing, full-tilt Punk thrash (Song 2) and sing-along glory (On Your Own) – via the seductive back roads of Theme from Retro thrown in. Following that, you have Death of a Party’s awkward sociability and another firecracker blast: Chinese Bombs and eighty-four seconds of bliss and urgency. I’m Just a Killer for Your Love and Look Inside America is a joyous, crowd-uniting one-two; Strange News from Another Star a prescient preface for Essex Dogs’ Barking (sorry!) villains and revel in a wonderful time for music. I guarantee you this: once you submit to the album and all it has to offer you will definitely not be…

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ON your own.

 

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