blurblog 4, the penultimate part in our blogathon on Blur. blurblog 1, on Hyde Park and how Blur have become a central part of our pop life is here, blurblog 2 on the tricky early years is here and blurblog 3 on the triumph of Parklife, and the cracks beginning to reveal themselves in the Great Escape here.
Walking away from Britpop was the easy bit.
For their next two albums – for many the most satisfying of Blur’s career, including the band themselves, you suspect – Blur moved on and played around, never quite settling, never really wanting to. They dabbled across a spectrum covering lo-fi grunge to anarchic techno soundscapes, famously giving a hoover the floor in “Bugman”. Blur began to wear their cleverness unapologetically and lightly, rather than as a means of marking their superiority. The arch, the glib and the chirpy chirp were put away; the artwork and the videos that came with Blur now were drawn from another palette; less garish, less attention seeking, more Instagram.
That they no longer craved the spotlight to the same nerve-fraying degree was obvious, but there was a slight problem. Albarn is simply too good a songwriter, too melodically gifted, to disappear from radio’s radar, and songs like “Beetlebum” , “Song 2”, “Tender” and “Coffee and TV” meant that the hits kept coming. Oblique album covers or domestic appliances may put you off the scent, but Blur still had our attention.
What we saw was a band that had become more functional, even if as individuals they were far from it. For late 90s Blur, their music seemed like the best thing going on in their lives. Alcohol was continuing to wreak havoc within the band, while Damon’s relationship with Justine Frischman deteriorated and descended briefly into a heroin fog (infamously the inspiration for “Beetlebum”).
However, Albarn’s musical response was twofold and beneficial for us, at least; first, to adopt a far, more personal approach to his writing and second to step back. He proved self-aware enough to know that his over-zealous competitive streak had not just been self-destructive but suffocating and had alienated him from the rest of the band. Graham Coxon assumed a much more central role in the band’s sound and the new, stripped back elements of “Blur” (such as “You’re So Great”) is a fairly direct result of this switch. Blur became a band again, rather than Damon’s vehicle for attention and ambition. Graham became happier, musically at least.
What we got was a more honest Blur emotionally, though this isn’t to say that their Britpop years were all flash and sneer – as the previous blog shows they were writing exquisite songs throughout their imperial phase, and the sound of Albarn’s lingering melancholy had long been present in songs from “This Is A Low” to “He Thought Of Cars”. The mistake Blur made was not to turn up to the party in the first place but to stay too long; they had got bored and the great thing about their next two albums was that we got to listen to a great band who were interested again. Even if their fiddling sometimes left us perplexed, it also stopped on genius long and often enough to remind us of the talent working its way through its curiosity.
“Beetlebum” is one such example, and a career highlight. A five minute writhe of a song, a beautiful stretch which arcs across its bleary, nihilistic chorus, a slicing lead guitar and lazy bass, all in the name of a good obliterating hit of smack. Is there any other band whose 2 number 1s offer such a contrast as Blur’s “Country House” and “Beetlebum”?
Next up was the even more startling “Song 2″, boasting a furious thrash and who-hoo chorus that became so ubiquitous it’s surprising how fresh it can still sound. A mucking-around throwaway, “Song 2” is still as straightforwardly exhilarating a 2 minutes as any other band got close to in the the nineties. Blur were doing dumb, but without a wink, and it was a fine thing.
The next singles, the Bowie-borrowing “M.O.R” and the hip hoppy “On Your Own”, were still traditional in structure but experimental in production, a tricksiness and restlessness now being applied more freely elsewhere. “Essex Dogs”, perhaps more fascinating than enjoyable, is a brilliantly difficult album sign-off with its violent panic pitched by guitar and siren sample underlaid by a heavier than usual bass from Alex. Elsewhere the experimentation was reigned in to provide the phonic edges for a more traditional ballad: “Death of a Party’s” sinister organ and flat drum matching the hollow, lifeless experiences described.
Two years later Blur reemerged with “13”, and arrived with Tender, a song whose modest time spent on the charts would prove to be no reflection of the depth of affection with which the song would come to be held. Blur were clearly stretching and flexing. 7 minutes and 41 seconds of gospel, call and answer, refrain and double bass, Damon’s sadness echoed in the ‘oh my baby’ plea of Graham’s backing vocal. A song which practically creaks with church floorboards takes you into the heart of a relationship’s collapse and back again and back again before it kinda becomes fun and you don’t want it to stop. It is one of the many strange and fascinating things about pop that one person’s emotional agony can become joy to millions of others.
However if you bought the album expecting a sweet array of songs like “Tender”, track 2’s “Bugman” and its hoover soon readjusts expectation, though the hoover works surprisingly well, jostling for attention along with Graham at the song’s frenetic peak. Blur had of course swapped career-long producer Stephen Street for man of the hour William Orbit. This is evident in some of the album’s darker, less hospitable corners such as“Battle” and stretches of “Trailerpark” and “Caramel”, but also in more wondrous moments such as “Trimm Trabb” and “No Distance Left To Run”. Maybe, where there is a stronger frame of a song to hang these dark, bending soundscapes upon, both Orbit and Blur are served better. Or maybe Pop Lifer has a limited attention span and a cheap, pop heart. Ah well.
Of course, the second unapologetically joyous moment on “13” is “Coffee and TV” which provided Graham with a rare lead vocal, a hit and the best supporting act in a music video award. The song is a simple, lolloping, lovely thing; whisper it quietly above the reverb and samples, but this could have been on “Parklife”. It’s introspective loveliness is now, of course, inextricably linked to a cute milk carton, thanks to a great video, second in the Blur video “best of” only to the untouchable “The Universal”.
As the music gets less clear over the two albums, it conversely becomes clearer that Damon was shedding skins, reimagining music, and looking elsewhere. No doubt anyone will now hear foreshadowing of Gorillaz in “13” because that’s what hindsight does but there was indeed an overlap chronologically.
Damon had come to have a deeply love/hate relationship with fame but had no doubt been intrigued to see – either side of Britpop’s wake – a whole bunch of ‘Superstar DJs’ emerging to be respected, revered and largely left alone. You could be master of ceremonies and scratch your cool kid itch, and with a project like Gorillaz, Albarn could give anonymity a face like no other. No one would have to see the Parklife gurn and its Gallagher brother connotations behind 2D’s anime cool and contrived back story.
Seven million purchases of “Gorillaz” and three years later the band reconvened out of a sense of contractual obligation, and that never makes for much fun. It didn’t. Blur broke up and “Battery in Your Leg” became Blur’s elegant whimper of a goodbye as a four piece, with Graham Coxon jumping ship (or being pushed) before the release of “Think Tank”, which may be why this record feels cut adrift from the majority of the Blur canon, rather like its opposite bookend “Leisure.”
However, Albarn – whose album “Think Tank” is almost solely – was by now a songwriter of startling and easy confidence far removed from the shaggy haired Goldsmith undergraduate we met in blurblog 2, and was quite happy to leave behind a messy kitchen after cooking up a masterpiece.
“Out of Time”, which sounded both prescient and poignant as the West went to war in Iraq, is a lightly arranged lament featuring North African percussion and strings, yet somehow avoiding all earnest trappings, manages to work simply and exquisitely. “Crazy Beats” is another trademark protusion on a Blur album, jutting in with a perfectly decent if non-revelatory interlude of spiky attitude. However the heart of the album remains closer to “Good Song” and “Sweet Song”, their very titles suggesting a new simplicity to Albarn’s musical approach. “Good Song” is a thing of sheer sunshiny loveliness, a gentle sweetheart stroll of a song, and that it was their least successful single since before that holiday in Greece probably didn’t matter to the band where once it would have driven Albarn to distraction.
Put simply, Damon’s heart wasn’t in Blur any more and Graham wasn’t in it at all. Gorillaz continued, Blur did not. Graham made some sweetly shambolic solo records and sniped back at his “megalomaniac” ex-bandmate through the media. Alex swapped champagne for cheese while Dave trained to be a lawyer. Years passed and finally the public and media seemed to wake up to what a truly wondrous band Blur had been, perhaps helped along by watching the Gallagher brothers ploughing ever decreasing circles of creativity. Blur never really said goodbye and if “Think Tank” was to be their farewell, then for the public at least it wasn’t anything like loud enough.
blurblog 5 – in which a croissant in Camden is responsible for some of the greatest live shows in pop history – coming soon.