For all the bluster and bravado, the cheap talk of revolution and the supposed radicalism the world of pop and rock music is a frigidly conservative one. Bands reach prominence thanks to a particular sound or style and unwilling to derail the gravy train, they cling grimly to the same moves and influences for years, becoming stale facsimiles of their former selves. Insert your own examples here. Few groups are brave or creative enough to go out on a limb, to take chances to reinvent themselves in that over-used phrase. But Blur is just such a group.
Always the brightest group of their generation, Blur has spent the past two years showing themselves to be one of the bravest. Leading lights of the movement known as Britpop, they bestrode British pop colossi in 1995, having been garlanded with Brit awards and Number One singles for their albums Parklife and The Great Escape. But finding themselves dissatisfied with the trappings of Cool Britannia celebrity, they underwent a process of creative regeneration that found them turning to more experimental music, and most notably to the work of mavericks such as Beck, Tortoise, Pavement, Neu and Dub music. That process, begun on the 1997 Blur album, has now reached its apotheosis on the new album 13. Recorded and mixed with contemporary studio avatar William Orbit, it is the sound of a band, in the words of Damon Albarn, “becoming completely free, becoming artistically liberated. Blur was a move in a new direction, a Modern Life Is Rubbish if you like. This is the Parklife to Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish”.
It represents a break with the past in many ways. It is the first album on which the group hasn’t collaborated with Stephen Street. “We’ve done some fantastic work with Stephen in the past and we’ve the greatest respect for him. But we had reached the stage where we wanted to challenge our own way of working.” The new way of working involved lengthy improvisations around song structures which Orbit and his boffins would painstakingly record and edit. The result is a sound at once abstract and yet crowded with detail and inspiring moments.
13 also has its roots in all kinds of changed personal and emotional circumstances, the sound of a group maturing into a fully realized musical whole, making the music that best expresses them: from “Tender”, an epic hymn of consolidation described by Alex James as “one of the best things we’ve ever done, the one that’s going to fucking knock people out” to the anguished yet hopeful blues of “No Distance Left To Run”, from the lo-fi pop cool of Graham Coxon’s “Coffee & TV” to the alluring strangeness “Battle” and “Mellow Song”. “Trailer Park”, originally written for the South Park album, is a splendid Kraut Rock/mutant hybrid of a type few others in British pop are currently attempting. It is the sound of a group in the happy and enviable position of inhabiting a soundworld that is utterly their own, although on 13 from time to time you may find yourself reminded in illuminating flashes of a whole range of talents from The Fall to Faust to Nick Drake to Pink Floyd to The Staples Singers to Wire to Augustus Pablo.
13 is, confusingly, Blur’s sixth album and marks their ten years as a band. Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon met at Colchester’s Stanway School and teamed first with local itinerant musician Dave Rowntree and later the student boulevardier, gourmet and New Order fan Alex James of Bournemouth.
They became Blur in 1989 having spent the best part of a year as Seymour the shambolic Brechtian art-rock act who had baffled most of media London. Fortunately, they caught the ear of Food Records who signed them late in the decade. Following the hit singles “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way”, their debut album Leisure released in 1991 was bamboozling mix of abstract My Bloody Valentine-style noise, psychedelic tunefulness and classic British beat-pop. It reached Number Seven. Despite public indifference to their lost classic single “Popscene”, Blur stuck to their guns and with Modern Life Is Rubbish, a record that’s darkly and quixotically British and flew in the face of the inert mass of bad grunge that most pop culture commentators were fixated on. In its imaginative arrangements and easy grasp of pop’s lexicon, it revealed a group who had long outgrown their shoe-gazing peers. With admirable perceptiveness, Select declared them “the best British group since the Smiths.”
This direction in the group’s sound lead inexorably to what may be seen as British pop’s defining moment in this decade, the Parklife album. Parklife has entered the nation’s cultural bloodstream and its distinctive stylings: mod, sharp, colloquial, nostalgic, are still being aped by many competitors long after the band has moved on. Parklife has sold well in excess of two million copies worldwide and this high watermark of an era was celebrated by the triumphant if slightly damp Mile End gig. 1995’s The Great Escape took this phase of the group’s development to its logical and lavish extreme; finely crafted and impeccably tailored pop songs where radiant skillful arrangements mask acerbic observations. A well-publicized rivalry with Oasis gripped the nation in the summer, the crowning moment of which was Blur’s “Country House” over Oasis’ “Roll With It.” But such songs were to spell the end of Damon’s fascination with narrative and character songs: “I had to move on and start to sing in a more genuine voice.”
That voice, and the voice of the band as a unit, was first heard on the album Blur released in 1997. It reflects a new awareness of left-field American rock particularly on Graham’s part and a newfound love of the empty beauty of Iceland on Damon’s and Alex’s. Also, there to be heard quite clearly is a growing dissatisfaction with English pop music and the nature of stardom as epitomized by the facile feud with Oasis. Blur is an abrasive but oddly attractive record that added some great new songs to the Blur canon, not least the anthemic “Song 2” and the mysterious “Strange News From Another Star” as well as a first solo foray on a Blur album from Graham, the cracked and melancholy “You’re So Great.”
Since the release of Blur, the individual members have busied themselves with a variety of projects. Alex has become a pop star all over again with curiously unfathomable Fat Less combo. Dave Rowntree has immersed himself in computer animation, and he and Alex have become keen flyers and are backing the 2003 British Unmanned Mars probe. Graham has formed his won label Transcopic as an outlet for the music he loves and on which he released the acclaimed solo album The Sky’s Too High earlier this year. Damon has followed up his acting debut in Antonia Bird’s “Face” by co-composing, along with Michael Nyman, the music for her latest venture “Ravenous”.
A newfound sense of well being has emerged within the group. “Things have never been healthier between us as a group,” said Damon. “We’ve acknowledged that we are different people, which ironically has made us realize how much we have in common and why we formed as a group in the first place. We respect each other and we’re remembering how much we love each other’s stuff.” Out of a tempestuous few years has come an album of great strength and individuality, an album that is light years ahead of what passes for alternative music right now, an album that, truthfully, could only be Blur.