Over the course of lockdown, Tim Burgess has been busy keeping the masses happy on Twitter by organising online listening parties (#TimsTwitterListeningParty) for various albums. Well, on Friday August 21st, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britpop between Oasis and Blur, we heard the latter’s album The Great Escape (Coincidentally celebrating its own 25th anniversary on the day this entry is written).
After being one of the pioneers of the Britpop movement with the release of Modern Life is Rubbish, Blur were immortalised by their follow up Parklife, and with the reception that the two albums received it was pretty much inevitable that the band were going to continue down the same route. Thus, we get The Great Escape, commonly deemed to be the third and final instalment in Blur’s ‘Life’ trilogy, taking potshots at the British upper class this time after dealing with the working and middle classes in MLIR and PL respectively.
So why is it that this album tends to get such a weak reception in comparison to its predecessors?
The most common criticism is that the album sounds overproduced and squeaky clean. Others may say that is was a case of ‘more of the same’ and that it wasn’t giving us anything new. A few would be turned off by the more cynical and downbeat nature of the music and the themes surrounding them. And of course some might say it ended up paling in comparison to Oasis’ effort of (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. All fair criticisms, but where do I stand on the matter?
Well until that Listening Party, I didn’t really have an opinion. I’d never properly listened to the album in full from beginning to end, mainly because I’d been turned off from the idea by people online who would crap on the album and make it out to be a slog of a listen. But last Friday I decided that I would try and hell, if people were voluntarily going to listen to this of their own accord and gush over it (Including drummer Dave Rowntree and producer Stephen Street), then surely there had to be something wonderful about The Great Escape.
So I did. And you know what? I have to agree. I had a great time listening to this album. Let’s look into it shall we?
Not much to say about this one, it sums up the fact that this will be Blur’s take on the upper class with three people having a swim around their private speedboat. The dominating colour blue also highlights that this one is going to be a rather gloomy take on the matter. With that in mind, I’d say it does what it sets out to achieve and advertises the album nicely. My main nitpick though, and this is gonna be me picking a really small nit; why is the band’s logo in italics? Doesn’t look right at all.
Track #1 – Stereotypes
So we kick things off with one of the singles and it’s a nice Pulp-style dig at wife-swapping and affairs. Not too much to say about it honestly, it’s not the most compelling of starts compared to For Tomorrow and Girls & Boys, but Stereotypes still manages to be loud, in-your-face and gets you pumped up and ready for the road ahead (Which technically is the same road we’ve been on since Modern Life, but let’s not split hairs).
Track #2 – Country House
My opinion on this one flip flops. If I’m in the right mood, then I can enjoy it, and I do find more often than not that I do in fact enjoy it. Not massively, but I don’t dislike it. It’s a wonderful pisstake at the expense of the band’s former boss at Food Records, David Balfe, who they never really saw eye to eye with and who retired to the country during Parklife’s production. Ironically, this is probably his best contribution to the band; existing to be turned into a caricature and the subject of the band’s first number one single. But the question has to be asked; the Battle of Britpop, would I choose this song or Roll With It? Well…I’ll admit, both songs are not the best representation of either band, but there’s something more listenable in the repetitive Roll With It as opposed to the cartoon-y story of Country House. Forgive me if I’m committing sacrilege here but Oasis gets the bump on this one.
Track #3 – Best Days
And if you’re still reading after that bombshell, here’s a song I heard for the first time I heard during the Listening Party and one of the darkhorses on this list of songs. Graham and Damon go hand in hand on this rather melancholy song which I suppose I relate to more than I usually would, being just out of uni where some of my Best Days may be behind me. Anyway, song’s great, and I do love that piano.
Track #4 – Charmless Man
I feel like this is the track that best sums up my feelings towards this album; filled with moments of brilliance connected together by others that are catchy but don’t really do it for me. Charmless Man has historically been a song of Blur’s that I have never gotten along with, yet one that I have really wanted to like. Hidden behind the annoying chorus of na-na-na’s, and a distorted guitar riff from Graham that for once isn’t really my cup of tea, is a cynical tale about an absolute pleb of a toff (Or, if rumour is to be believed, Suede’s own Brett Anderson) that doesn’t really overstay its welcome and once again has a nice piano solo courtesy of Damon. I’m starting to warm up to it the more I listen to it but I still maintain, it ain’t the best song on this album by a long shot and would probably have been better appreciated if it wasn’t made a single.
Track #5 – Fade Away
During the Listening Party, Dave Rowntree described this song as being a sort of homage to Terry Hall and the Specials. And I’m all for that, I bloody love the Specials, Ghost Town is a classic and frankly with the way this year has gone I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes the darkhorse for the 2020 Christmas number one. Sorry, getting off topic. Fade Away is great; I’m all for a bit of ska, which is something Blur don’t normally tap into but it’s nice to see them continue to stretch their range after tapping into various genres on Parklife. Particular highlights include the trumpets and Graham’s guitar strum at the halfway mark, and the cynical and downbeat lyrics including “He noticed her visible lines/She worried about her behind”. That made me chuckle.
Track #6 – Top Man
Not to be confused with the hipster’s dream shop (And I say this as a guy who enjoyed splashing out on ultra skinny jeans and t-shirts), this is yet another character for Damon to have a dig at but if you look more closely into the lyrics…I think he’s talking about himself. After all, he is at that point in time the Top Man of Britpop, and it would make sense for him to be that “monkey on the roof”, “a little boy racer”, and how much do you want to bet that that person he sees in double before he “pukes on the pavement” is Justine Frischmann? Speculation on my part but I’m just saying. The song itself is quite good, and one that I could actually picture being a single but maybe it’s just a little too reserved and not in-your-face enough for that.
Track #7 – The Universal
F*ck British Gas. I can’t hear this song now without thinking of them, and I hate that fact because this song is phenomenal. It’s an ethereal, subdued anthem and the backing vocalists are the cream on the cake. You know what, my words can’t do it justice. Use the link below, listen to it, bask in its glory, and then come back for the next track.
Track #8 – Mr Robinson’s Quango
Back to the character pieces now, with a tale about Mr Robinson and with one of the single best rhymes ever penned by a songwriter courtesy of Damon – “He’s got a hairpiece, he’s got a herpes”. How in the blue hell do you come up with that? Noel and Jarv can eat their hearts out. In fact, speaking of Jarv, this once again does feel like a Pulp song given the Blur treatment, both in lyrics and in terms of the fact that Graham’s guitar at the beginning sounds almost identical to the line from Stereotypes. Maybe that’s just me though. Alex does a good job on bass here aswell, and I feel that I don’t often give him enough praise; when dissecting songs, bass is often the last part I come to. Obviously, Song 2 is Alex’s finest hour, but here and across the album he plays his part well.
Track #9 – He Thought of Cars
Tied with The Universal as my favourite song on this album, this is a dark turn and one that foreshadows the band’s future. If they had saved this song for the next album, added more distortion to the guitar and to Damon’s vocals, and maybe dropped the la-la-la’s of the chorus, then this could easily have slotted in on Blur. But while I could gush about this one, it was here that I began to realise why this album is considered the inferior one of the Life trilogy; there isn’t that much variation. Think about what we had by this point in Parklife – Alex’s space-travel trip in Far Out, the backing track for a pompous arsehole in The Debt Collector, the synthy dance-pop of Girls & Boys, Phil Daniels narrating Parklife, fast-paced punk rocking in Bank Holiday. Here on The Great Escape, we’ve had ska from Fade Away, and He Thought of Cars is foreboding and slow, but that’s it. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, it just means the album is lacking pep. Not good considering I think this is The Great Escape’s peak.
Track #10 – It Could Be You
Well here’s a bit of pep at least. This one brought me back to Advert from Modern Life, with a slightly punky sound to it, but apart from Graham’s guitar work there’s not that much I can say about it…except for the fact that of all the songs here, this is the one I feel suffers the most from the overproduction that The Great Escape has been criticised for. There’s something that sounds overly squeaky-clean in those reverbs and the clashing of the electric and acoustic guitars.
Track #11 – Ernold Same
So it was true. Ken Livingstone was on this track. And according to producer Stephen Street, he was a complete twat. Must be a job requirement for London Mayors. This one isn’t gonna set the world on fire, but I think it’s a nice inverse to Parklife, with the angry arrogance of Phil Daniels replaced with the nasally boring old drone of the ‘Right-On’ Ken. A bit shorter than I’d have preferred but a nice relaxing one after the previous track. I’d even say it’s borderline ASMR given it made me want to flutter away in the sky and forget all my problems.
Track #12 – Globe Alone
Now here’s the pep I was looking for! Graham absolutely twats that guitar, Damon has some added bite in his performance here and credit has to be given to Dave on the drums aswell. I thought Phil from Radiohead had to go fast for Jigsaw Falling Into Place, Dave has to go at the speed of light here to keep up with the pace of the song. Definitely another of the darkhorses on Great Escape. But like the previous track, it’s just a shame its over so soon. Or then again, for the sake of Dave’s blood pressure, maybe it’s not.
Track #13 – Dan Abnormal
A.k.a Damon’s character from the music vid for M.O.R on the next album, obviously this one is going to be another piece aimed at a fictional character holding a gigantic mirror to reflect Damon’s words right back at him, his true target. Apparently, he was actually hungover when performing this in the studio and you can tell; he actually sounds bleary-eyed if that’s even possible. However, this isn’t really one of my favourites on this album, it’s just another one of the character-substituting-for-Damon songs and doesn’t stand out compared to the others.
Track #14 – Entertain Me
I got some ELO vibes from this one when hearing it for the first time, which was during the Blur v Oasis anniversary Star Shaped Disco Night. It got added to my Spotify playlist straight afterwards. Sadly though, it signals that the variation that I’d been teased with from Ernold Same and It Could Be You aren’t going to appear anymore and this is very much the norm. Again, nothing necessarily bad about that, in fact it’s easily one of the better songs on the album. As usual Graham is on top form and has some real prominence in his backing vocals, and once again Dave gets a real chance to shine. I just wish there had been more energy behind the making of this album but I suppose it came at a time when the band was coming to the end of its tether, with the first specks of frost beginning to appear on Damon and Justine’s relationship, and Graham becoming sick of the Britpop tone.
Track #15 – Yuko and Hiro
So I guess that’s why we end up finishing with a track like Yuko and Hiro. I noted down as I was listening to it for the first time that it sounded deliciously weird, and that lyrically it seemed like a song that could have appeared on 13 or Think Tank, but ended up in the Britpop era by accident. And that’s because this song is so damn sad, and like with He Thought of Cars it feels like we’re transitioning away from Britpop to the more gloomy stages of Blur’s career. For one last time we have a song that sees Damon reflecting on his own problems through characters, the problem this time being his relationship with Justine; two people working to ensure the very best for their careers at the cost of their time together. With Elastica beginning to take off, especially in America (Blur’s forbidden land), and Blur dealing with their continued success at home, this was the beginning of the end for Damon and Justine’s relationship. I must admit, I did almost tear up while listening to Yuko and Hiro due to its sense of finality and resignation, and that ending seems to signal that this is indeed the end of an era, as Blur’s time as the icons of Britpop just fades away…
To me, The Great Escape is quite possibly the most Britpoppy of Britpop albums, with its array of upper class caricatures, deliciously cartoony and biting lyrics and a theme of cynicism and at times despair bashing against catchy and peppy tunes. In that regard, it more than manages to do what it has set out to achieve and that is be a Britpop album which is a fun listen. Job done.
However, by indulging in those three factors a bit too much, especially towards cynicism, The Great Escape stops itself from being a quintessential listen like Parklife was. Not helped by the lack of variation in style as I mentioned earlier, this album does fall short of the mark expected after listening to MLIR and PL, but if you do find yourself digging in you end up listening to some underrated songs like Globe Alone, Best Days, Yuko and Hiro and especially He Thought of Cars. At the end of the day, it’s a very middle-of-the-road effort from Blur but considering that their output is average at worst, that still means you’re going to have a good time with this album.
So yeah. This was indeed the end of an era. Britpop began to falter not long after the album’s release, having peaked with the summer battle between Roll With It and Country House. Blur fell by the wayside as Oasis-mania swept the country, and tensions rose to almost fatal levels between the band members. A reboot was needed, and as with every end came a new beginning, one which I will happily talk about one day.