That difficult 5th album
Blur – Blur
Released: 10th February 1997
They say that history is written by the winners…but when it’s hard to tell who won and lost, there can be a blurring of the story, which is definitely something that has been helpful to Blur.
Let’s be honest, history has been very kind to Blur. They never reached their own personal Knebworth nor were they were to be found in national stadiums year after year but that doesn’t matter. Blur remained in control and by setting off in a different direction; they took that sort of set-up out of the equation.
The material found on Blur and 13 was never going to appeal to enough people to ensure they remained the nation’s sweethearts but it gave people a very different side to like. Blur were always a mashup of different sounds and styles, there was a period of time when the nation was locked into that but equally, there has been much more time when Blur have sat outside of what is viewed to be popular…but even when they have been obtuse, experimental and wilfully disobedient, they’ve never been too far from a pop edge. As has been shown in the various projects undertaken by Damon Albarn, that is never going to go away, he is a dab hand at making pop tunes.
While the band may be deemed to be the long-term winners from the competitive era they were in, the build-up to the Blur album left them feeling like losers. Graham Coxon struggled to deal with the pressure of having a Number One single (and the media circus that surrounded it) while when Oasis climbed to Supernova Heights, Albarn must have felt like he was being slapped in the face at every corner. Both Noel and Damon have said over the years that their appearance in a pub was all that was required to see a lot of money poured into jukeboxes to play the songs of their rival. Songwriters dream of the day when people hum, whistle or sing their songs in the street but when you have people coming up to you and singing other people’s songs at you, it must kick you in the guts.
While the mainstream UK music press loved it on release, it is fair to say that The Great Escape stretched Blur too far. It was a natural follow-up to Parklife but it was darker, gloomier and at times, trying too hard. There were some great moments on it, The Universal’s charm still not being diminished by those bloody gas adverts and while it seems to be an unpopular choice, the horns on Country House are still immensely pleasing.
Dan Abnormal was a neat idea that should never have made it past the demo stage, Mr Robinson’s Quango was terrible then and is still terrible today and let’s be honest, putting Ken Livingstone on the record was a move that should have been avoided. Yes, Red Ken was in the trenches at this time, providing left-wing opposition to Tony Blair and New Labour but in the intervening years, Livingstone and Blair have done themselves no favours. Never trust a politician!
Musical and personal differences were eating away at the group and it would have been no great surprise to insiders if the band split at the time. It was a brave move to keep going but that was nothing compared to the brave music that the band was about to make with their music. Damon was still at the forefront but this was definitely a record where the keys were handed to Graham Coxon to drive.
It is only natural to be a bit cynical about Blur’s sudden about face, with Look Inside America being one of the key tracks on the record. This is a band who had rallied on a platform of America being rubbish and yet here we are, the second Britain turned its back on the boys, they were listening to Pavement and looking very seriously at flannel shirts.
The thing is though, maybe they were taking a new route to follow the money, maybe this was a natural by-product of letting Graham take more control over the direction of the band or perhaps Damon did have a Road to Damascus (or Delaware) moment. The thing is, given the quality of Look Inside America, I couldn’t care less about the motives behind it, you just want songs like that to keep coming.
And of course, Blur would go on to smash America with Song 2, a song that fits perfectly with the high-octane bro-filled demands of US sports arenas.
Song 2 has a life that is far bigger than the track itself. Not only is it a song that is loved by people who don’t normally like the music of Blur, it is liked by people who don’t actually like much music! The track has taken on a life of its own and the success of the track in America is one of the small, yet important, areas where Blur can point to success in the fallout of the Britpop wars.
Oasis never had the legs to stay the course in America and Blur usurped them by throwing in a fizzing grenade of a track. Noel Gallagher was writing songs loved by the man in the street and on the terraces but Blur pulled out a mini-blast that was adored by the Jocks in arenas, the families waving foam fingers and the masses huddled around TVs. You have to wonder how many songwriters have kicked themselves at not creating something as simple yet engaging like Song 2?
There was also another factor which no doubt helped the song become the track of choice to whip fans into a frenzy. Late 1997 saw the use of ‘Rock and Roll Part II‘ drop dramatically and in the words of Ultrasound, “Gary Glitter’s gone to seed, so who will lead us now“? For US sports fans, it was Blur and Song 2 that saved them. Woo-hoo indeed!
A lot of the times influences are cited because band’s do all the work for journalists. This was most notable with Blur’s pals Oasis and the continual Beatles references, even though there were many more acts who the Manchester lads sounded like. Similarly, the sound of Blur was far more diverse than Stephen Malkmus and the lads, with Bowie being a big inspiration over the record. There is the feel of The Specials, notably on Death of A Party but most importantly, this still sounds like a Blur record…just a very different Blur.
Beetlebum is the perfect example of how things had completely changed yet still remained within touching distance of what was known and loved about the band. It’s a beautiful melody and regardless of whether it was of love or the early days of addiction (sometimes it’s hard to discern the difference), it connected. The record company may have been sweating bullets about whether the album held any radio friendly unit shifters but Blur still had the magic touch.
While it was the album where Coxon had more of a say, it’s only really on You’re So Great that he pushes himself to the fore. The crackling production reinforces the lo-fi nature of it all, Coxon throttling his guitar as he strums, while his voice appears on the edge of breaking. It never does but the sense of fragility adds a lot to the record, and to the band.
Even on fantastic Blur moments like To The End or This Is A Low, there was emotion and kinship but there was never fragility, that wasn’t a trait you would have previously associated with the band or Damon Albarn. It was all over this record though, a sign that the band had been given a mental kicking while no doubt kicking themselves harder over the previous two years. Blur may have been a release but it wore its trials and tribulations on its sleeve.
It would be wrong to paint Blur as a tortured record, there are many joyous moments on it. Even aside from the sheer pleasure rush of Song 2’s chorus, the one-two of M.O.R. and On Your Own is infectious. The rhythm of these tracks sweeps you up from the start, busying itself along the journey before delivering a couple of big choruses. Chinese Bombs ensured that there was still room to pogo and shout while Movin’ On gave one last high before the record spins out.
There’s obviously no such thing as winners or losers in music, that’s against the whole point of what is created but there is a correlation between the bands that changed, evolved or took risks between 94 and the end of the millennium.
Suede had their difficult album in 1995 and by the time of their third release Coming Up, they were flying. Pulp were the old guard but This Is Hardcore was the perfect summation of the fear and comedown from the parties of the mid 90s. Supergrass made a similar move to Blur in 1997, with In It For The Money offering a very different sound from their ’95 debut smash. With the Grass, it was maybe just a case of growing up, but like Blur, they never lost their pop sensibilities…if you want something to do in the next couple of days, go and listen to Richard III, Late in The Day, Sun Hits The Sky and Going Out. In fact, go and listen to Going Out on repeat. Supergrass would continue their evolution over a number of records, changing it up but never losing sight of what they were good at.
Sure, bands like Cast and Shed Seven are still clearing up on the road pleasing people who want that nostalgia in their life, and there’s a space for everyone but when it comes to the bands that will be the first mentioned for years to come, it was the bands that made it big and never settled for staying with what made them loved in the first place.
Blur would go on to have stunning moments on every release they have made since. Trimm Trabb on 13 is a fantastic song while Tender can be enjoyed by everyone. Think Tank was difficult but it still provided Out of Time, a song that can be listened to time and time again. When the band got back together, it was a bit of a shock but not as much of a shock as Under The Westway. It was if the band hadn’t been away, with the song being a genuinely touching ballad that swoops and soars.
I don’t think Magic Whip is as great as most people say it is, I think there was a level of joy about the return of the band that seeped into people’s judgment of the songs…but then again, so what if it did?
If we’re going to take emotion out of why we listen to music, you may as well bin everything and let Gary Barlow and Michael Buble roam the earth spewing out dull, uninteresting and demographically targetted bile.
And there were some good songs on the album with Lonesome Street, I Broadcast and My Terracotta Heart all making cases to be added to a Blur playlist. It was a slightly jaded record, even the more upbeat songs like Ong Ong seemed to hang at times, but hey, we’ve all aged and developed a new found perspective on life haven’t we? The fact that Blur actually got it together to make the record deserves recognition…and the reunion shows were wonderful.
I could probably continue talking about the album but there’s a need to call it a day at some point, so let’s give Graeme the last word; “I’m really fond of that record. I think it’s one of our best.”