Not too long ago I finished reading the Blur biography 3862 Days, written up by Stuart Maconie at the time of the release of 13 in the dying months of the 20th century. Most Blur fans already know the cliffnotes of the band’s 90s output but this book really fills in the gaps and expands on the bits and pieces you can find on Wikipedia. It provides the thoughts and feelings of the band and the crew on the main events of the decade; the annus horribilis of 1992, the ever growing wedge between the band and Dave Balfe, the megastorm of Parklife and of course that oh so oversaturated piece of history the Battle of Britpop.
But what caught my intrigue the most was the aftermath of the release of The Great Escape and then WTSMG. We all know that with the release of the latter album the tide turned and Blur suddenly went from the dog’s bollocks to just plain bollocks. The cartoony Britpop sound exemplified by Country House didn’t sit well with the masses who were by now high on Wonderwall, Don’t Look Back in Anger and Champagne Supernova. Since learning about the tide change a while back, I also noticed that it nearly led to a split in the band which baffled me. I mean, ok, public perception of you just took a sharp turn and that can damage morale and all but you can bounce back right? Well it wasn’t quite as simple as that according to the book.
The combination of Graham Coxon and the life of a popstar with screaming teenagers drowning out the music had gone together about as well as a dictator and a dignified exit. Simply put he wasn’t enjoying the music nor the lifestyle, feeling that being in Blur had become a job that he disliked. Obviously this put him at loggerheads with his bandmates, in particular Alex James who was the antithesis of Graham and loving every second of it and the bottles of bubbly it brought. Consequently there was a split down the middle and that was where Blur very nearly died.
However, Damon was beginning to share the cynicism of the Britpop sound with Graham after The Great Escape’s fall from grace and took onboard his mate’s wishes to make music that scared people again. The result was a grittier, lo-fi effort taking influence from American bands such as Pavement and doing away with the bombastic brass and strings. And for me, it’s where it all began.
This is Blur.
Track #1 – Beetlebum
The first song I ever talked about on A-Side Glance and my thoughts on it haven’t changed since then so I’ll just say it’s an excellent opening track, definitely Blur’s best, one which will always be in at least my top five of their entire catalogue and move on.
Track #2 – Song 2
The most happy accident of them all. Blur jokingly pitched this as the second single of the album, the label ran with it and next thing you know it’s on practically every trailer for every piece of media in 1997-98. Oh and it became Blur’s biggest hit in America by a country mile. Irony is no finer than when a band who at one point acted out against grunge made a grunge parody and found themselves in the upper echelons of Billboard as a result. Delish. Anyway, yes this song is completely overplayed and is nowhere near as good as people might say but it’s short and sweet and I have gone on record as saying Alex’s bassline is fantastic so there that is.
Track #3 – Country Sad Ballad Man
This is where the lo-fi really kicks in, with a hazy little number. It’s uneven but in a good way, with Graham getting a chance to flourish as the song approaches its end. I think it might be one designed to lull you into a false sense of security; hence the title, it is a ballad until it approaches the climax and then it turns into one glorious mess of noisy music. A late-entry tone setter for Blur.
Track #4 – M.O.R
Arguably the most commercial and standard piece of alt-rock to be found on Blur. Aptly it is rather middle of the road considering the rest of the album’s playlist but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact it’s one song that I find myself listening to a fair bit, it’s a good song to rock out and have a bit of a head bop to.
Track #5 – On Your Own
Gorillaz track zero. This is where Damon unwittingly begins transforming into 2D and we see the band experiment with a drum machine and synths. Again, fine and good for a fleeting listen but nothing to write home about.
Track #6 – Theme from Retro
Ooh I like this. After being more down to Earth for the last couple of songs we take a trip into space with this song, one of mystique and unease. Those organ sounds definitely do their damndest to make your neck hairs stand on end. It’s a bit of a left turn but after the last two tracks it’s a welcome change of pace and acts as a decent bridge into the next portion of the album.
Track #7 – You’re so Great
Graham Coxon should have done more Blur songs. This and Coffee & TV are two of my favourite songs from the band’s post-Britpop era and some days I actually find myself preferring this to his later effort. This is such a wonderfully intimate song, balancing the woes of alcoholism and love. I must admit though I am on the fence with the distortion of the overall sound which keeps the song in line with the lo-fi tone of the album. On the one hand I feel it’s a little unnecessary and takes away from the beauty of the song. Then again, maybe it suits the shy and retiring Graham to a tee, hiding behind whatever he can whilst pouring his heart out. After all, he did record this under a table in the dark, according to Maconie’s book. Regardless, this is my third favourite track, definitely a worthy winner of the bronze medal.
Track #8 – Death of a Party
Silver medal however goes to this song, one which was written during the Modern Life is Rubbish days and is based off the AIDS epidemic. Two words: Hammond organ. This song is deliciously spooky and I am all here for it.
Track #9 – Chinese Bombs
A runtime of 1:25? This is going to be this album’s Bank Holiday. This was one of the two songs first played live from Blur and I would have gladly paid to see everyone’s reaction to this. Blur’s fast songs have always felt punky but adding the distortion brings up a notch. Could have easily had this on a Tony Hawk game. Like Theme From Retro, a decent bridge into the final third of Blur.
Track #10 – I’m Just a Killer for Your Love
Hmm…I’m mixed on this one. I’ll get the cons out of the way first by saying that I’m not a massive fan of Damon’s singing style on this one. It suits the song, sure, but it just sounds a bit too American for my liking. In fact I was wondering if that even was him singing at first. Then there’s what he was singing. You’d have an easier time trying to work out what Duran Duran are singing about in A View to a Kill. However, the outweighing pro here is once again the music. Graham is on form as always; you can tell he’s having a much better time than in the Britpop days, being able to twist the noise of his guitar strings, and Dave especially commands the track with a solid drumbeat. Very raw sounding, like a one take wonder straight from the studio to the disc.
Track #11 – Look Inside America
Don’t like this one. Weakest track on the album in my opinion. While it’s based off the lads touring in the US which could make for a tasty bit of writing, honestly it’s much more interesting reading about the real deal then listening to this.
Track #12 – Strange News from Another Star
Most pleasant surprise on the album since Theme from Retro. I don’t know, I guess I’m a sucker for the more ‘spacy’ songs on Blur. But yeah, Strange News for my money has the best intro since Beetlebum and has a nice David Bowie vibe running through it. While the song manages to remain calm for the most part the little harsh beats behind the acoustic guitar gives the impression of a star threatening to go supernova. This song so easily could have just flipped and gone all out in the final minute but we get a drumbeat that makes it sound like it’s marching toward its end like a good soldier. Life goes marching on. Only complaint I have is that I wish there was one more verse frankly. I genuinely really like this track, and I think Graham is going to have share that bronze medal now.
Track #13 – Movin’ On
I feel like this is a precursor to Bugman from the next album, they both sound incredibly similar. Except this is at a much more reasonable volume (Apologies for the tangent, but f*ck Bugman, that song scared the living shit out of me when I was five). Anyway, after the slower songs we’ve had for the past 12 minutes, this is a nice way to get the blood pumping again. I think it should have kept going until the final note instead of fading out but never mind.
Track #14 – Essex Dogs
Oh, Essex Dogs. I heard things about you. How in the hell did Graham produce that noise?! He made that guitar sound like an engine motor, droning on and off and on in waves and growling louder than a Subaru Impreza rally car. If he wanted to create music that scared people on Blur, mission accomplished. Here he has created a monster, one that creeps up on you and roars in your face over and over again. This is the most pants-shitting Blur have ever gotten (Well, until bloody Bugman that is. Sorry I’ll shut up about that now). And Damon. I disliked his different style of vocals on Killer for Your Love. Here he’s changed things up again and it is excellent; spoken verse, once again leaning into the Bowie influence and making him sound almost like Jarvis. This song more than any emphasises how much more personal his songwriting has been on this album, as he waxes lyrical about how much of a shithole his home of Colchester is. What a way to end.
Blur is a mixed bag but I’m happy to say it’s one with way more ups than downs. While the lo-fi-influenced sound isn’t always my cup of tea, it does provide a welcome change of pace from Blur’s Britpop trilogy and allows the band to go off in different directions and flex their creative muscles. In keeping with the Bowie influences heard across the album, they have that mantra in their heads of making music for themselves rather than their audience and it delivers in spades in most parts.
Not an easy listen by any stretch of the imagination and one that I’m willing to bet would be thought of by less die hard fans as an album that they respect more than they like (As I felt with Pulp’s This is Hardcore). But this was the start of Blur’s experimental phase that would continue for the second half of their careers and would be improved upon with 13 and, dare I say it, parts of Think Tank. They’d had their day in the commercial sun, they had been cast into the shadows and now they were making music that would keep themselves going and they were damn well going to make themselves heard. Even if lo-fi ain’t your cup of tea either, you are going to be pleasantly surprised by songs like Strange News from Another Star, You’re So Great and Essex Dogs. Just be prepared for a couple of dips in quality because like I say it is a mixed bag; not everything is impressive. Even the worst tracks are passable though so give Blur a shot if you haven’t already and see what you think.