Blur’s “Song 2,” a joking bit of alt-rock nonsense, is the kind of cultural touchstone that rival band Oasis would have killed for. It’s at football stadiums and in movie trailers and blasting out of youtube videos at all times, forever. As the public face of such a monumentally influential band, though, the song does a bit of a disservice. The rest of Blur’s discography is overflowing with strange, sad songs that don’t fight against modern life so much as they reflect it back upon itself, and “Song 2,” though by no means bad, sticks out like a sore thumb. Dig a little deeper and the band’s true strengths become clear: Damon Albarn’s uniquely unintelligible vocalizations and sardonic lyrics, Graham Coxon’s powerful guitar work, Alex James’ propulsive bass playing, and drummer Dave Rowntree’s dance-oriented clockwork timekeeping. There’s not a bad album in the band’s discography, but the group underwent 3 distinct phases that make working through their history a tad intimidating. I’ll do my best to delineate things.
Phase 1 – Scene-Stealers
Blur’s first album is perhaps their least representative release (and certainly their most derided). Considered on its own terms without the rest of the discography looming over it though, Leisure is an enjoyable and hook-filled pop album that just happens to be a cynical regurgitation of outdated trends by a record company looking to cash in. Really, it’s hard to say how much of the shoegazey, baggy Leisure sound was a result of label interference and how much of it was the result of Blur being a young, woefully inexperienced band. Regardless, Blur pushed to distance themselves from the album almost immediately, especially because it garnered them middling reviews and left them £60,000 in debt.
Certainly Leisure lacks the vision and scope of later Blur albums, but half the songs here are as catchy and effervescent as anything the band would put out even at the height of their powers. “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way” are stone-cold classics, all dreamy distortion and love-lorn gibberish. The haunting “Sing” forecasts, impossibly, the band’s last couple albums with its uncomfortable ambiance and condensed lyricism. Even the throwaway “Bang” espouses the joy of early-90s indie rock in a not-unenjoyable way. There’s filler galore on Leisure, but it’s an album worth visiting and revisiting if only for the highs of its highs and the generally wistful atmosphere it cultivates.
Phase 2 – Britpop Innovators
Modern Life is Rubbish (1993)
Following Leisure’s release, Blur found themselves the laughing stock of the UK music scene. In an attempt to recoup their losses and find a new audience, they toured America in 1992 on the back of a new single, “Popscene.” Though the tour was a failure, “Popscene” served as the inception point for the Blur we know and love today. The song is essential, both for its musical merits and for its historical importance. Albarn uses the song to fight against Blur’s handlers and the pigeonhole the band found themselves in, sarcastically referring to himself as a “chrome covered clone” and blasting apart the sound that made Blur famous/infamous. Even today, the song’s frantic pace and driving horn breakdowns sound ferocious (especially in the face of Leisure’s whimsy). Blur had heralded a change.
The band’s 2nd album, Modern Life is Rubbish, proved that the new direction teased by “Popscene” was here to stay. Together, the two releases are largely responsible for originating the wave of Britpop that swept both the UK and the US during the mid-90s. That said, Blur hadn’t yet perfected the idea, and this first salvo pales a bit in comparison with what would come later. The ideas are all there: working life troubles, ennui, romantic numbness, the encroachment of modernity. Rubbish just doesn’t hold together as well as its two direct sequels, Parklife and The Great Escape. It’s an ambitious album that showcases a band plunging headfirst into a new sound entirely their own, but the inexperienced songwriting still pokes holes in the disc’s grand facade.
Certainly there are strong exceptions: opener “For Tomorrow” relegates its storytelling to a motor mouthed bridge, but its tale of driftless lovers is still a large step up in ambition from the simple platitudes of Leisure. “Blue Jeans” is better still, a simple song about a passive romance that utilizes detail and metaphor to attain a remarkable amount of heft. The cheeky “Sunday Sunday” shouldn’t have been a single, but it’s a wonder that “Chemical World” was given the amount of character detail and bristling sarcasm it packs into its brief, caffeinated rush. Producer Stephen Street proves a good fit for the band’s new ambitions, and he helps paint Rubbish in vibrant but comfortable hues. The dream-pop direction of Leisure is replaced here by a bright, grand sound best exemplified by the U2-sized bridge of “Oily Water” and the unmistakable opening drum slaps of “Blue Jeans.”
The 2nd album in Blur’s britpop trilogy, Parklife, is a condensation of everything that made Blur special. It’s an incredibly expansive pseudo-concept album about the pratfalls of modern life, made up of the most consistently great string of songs the band ever recorded. From the unexpectedly great dance track “Girls & Boys” on through the massive triple guitar solo that closes out the album in a grand fashion on “This is a Low,” Parklife is a spectacle to behold. It’s at turns sad, funny, cute, and ferocious. Albarn had honed his songwriting craft to the point where he could socket a song as gentle and heartbreaking as “Badhead” in next to a new-wave snot rocket like “Trouble in the Message Centre” and the French pop morsel “To the End.” There’s nary a misstep to be found, as long as you can stomach a couple of supermarket waltzes.
Thematically, the album is as varied as the city it examines (the original title for the album was, simply, London). In “Tracy Jacks,” the band sympathetically spin the yarn of an everyman who finally gets fed up with life, runs around in public naked, steals a bulldozer, and demolishes his own house. It would be funny if the “everyday he got closer, he knew in his heart he was over” line didn’t forecast a certain storm on the horizon. “Clover Over Dover” takes that concept to its logical conclusion, situating an unnamed character on the White Cliffs of Dover and following him through an internal debate over his own suicide. Only the astrological mid-album interlude “Far Out” (written by bassist Alex James) allows for any escape from the cruelly impersonal city detailed in songs like “London Loves.” Not even “Magic America” can provide the escape these people need so badly.
Grim stuff, but songs like the title track keep the album from suffocating under its own melancholy. Narrated by comedian Phil Daniels, the energetic pub rock single and its dryly humorous lyrics are on of Blur’s most prominent calling cards. “This is a Low” would likely have shared in that glory had it been released as a single as planned, but that might actually work in the song’s favor. It arrives at the end of the album all but unheralded, and then sweeps across all of the UK in a majestic, mature swell that remains unmatched in the band’s discography. It’s an absolute beast of a song and a fitting capstone on such an ambitious album. It makes good on whatever scraps of promise had gone unfulfilled at that point.
The Great Escape (1995)
After the massive success of Parklife, Blur were at the top of their game but seemingly unsure of where to go next. Unfocused and overproduced, The Great Escape, released just a year later, could only be seen as a disappointment following Parklife, but it also contains some of the band’s absolute best songs in amongst detritus that feel a bit like self-parody. “The Universal” is one of the winners, a stately, assured pop song that features one of the band’s most indelible and beautiful choruses. Non-single “He Thought of Cars” is even better, and sports some of the most cutting and artful lyrics Albarn produced. Its dissonant choruses and calm verses brush against the confines of Blur’s own formula in ways that would be more fully fleshed out very shortly.
The majority of the album feels like Parklife leftovers though, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your taste for more of the same. The album is glossier and more produced than Parklife, and it doesn’t tie together as well as a complete work, but songs like “Stereotypes” and, especially, “Best Days” explore the same themes of alienation and boredom just as well as anything on the previous album. Closer “Yuko and Hiro” offers none of the cinematic grandeur of “This is a Low,” but its economical storytelling and uplifting tone are a nice change of pace, and the song remains a personal favorite of mine. Still, dross like the how-was-this-a-hit hit “Country House” and the repetitive “Top Man” drag the album down. The Great Escape is still highly recommended, but Parklife sustains much better.
Phase 3 – Another Alternative
Three albums in and already bored with britpop (though potshots from the music press and rival band Oasis didn’t help), Blur actively sought a way to fight inertia following The Great Escape. Ultimately, the main change was a ceding of influence and power to guitarist Graham Coxon from former band leader Damon Albarn. Coxon was infatuated with American alternative music, and Albarn finally let that influence seep into the band’s sound with Blur. The result is a very transitional record, but one that finds Blur emerging relatively unscathed from yet another reinvention. Coxon proves himself a more than capable collaborator, even if Blur pales in comparison with its much fuller, more accomplished sequel 13.
Still, all the promise of a Pavement-influenced Blur is fleshed out on opener “Beetlebum,” one of the strongest songs in the Blur canon. Inspired by Albarn’s drug use and breakup with Elastica singer Justine Frischmann, the song is a warm, simple change of pace from the overproduction gloss that smothered The Great Escape. Albarn’s vocals are more soulful than they’d ever been before, and Coxon gets to let loose on an extended guitar coda. Of course, the song is followed up by the infamous “Song 2,” a grunge parody whose “WOO-HOOs” continue to receive far more attention than they warrant. From there, it’s a slow trip through totally serviceable but not especially exciting rock that feels like a band working out some new kinks.
“Death of a Party” is the cut that has survived. It’s a dark, sexy vamp with an aching, exhausted chorus. It is a prime example of Albarn’s concerted effort to start writing more personal, more straightforward songs, and it works wonders. Not so much with “On Your Own,” a single that sounds like the c-side to a b-side, or the haunted circus ambiance of “Theme From Retro.” “M.O.R.” pleases, but perhaps only because it’s a straight up Bowie rip (Blur were forced to give writing credit to both Bowie and his producer Brian Eno to avoid legal troubles). “Strange News From Another Star” sounds even more Bowieish, but it stands on its own much more successfully. It’s a sci-fi ballad that recontextualizes Albarn’s psyche as an apocalyptic wasteland, and if that sounds a tad dramatic, well, they pull it off rather nicely.
As Blur approached the End of the Century, they released an album as defining and as strong as Parklife. It’s a testament to the band that neither of them sounds anything alike. Where Parklife began with the discofied sneer of “Girls & Boys,” 13 kicks off with an 8 minute gospel-tinged ballad, “Tender”. It absolutely should not work given how simple the song structure is and how long the song repeats itself, but, given the conviction in Albarn’s vocals and the song’s amber-hued coziness, it’s a hard tune to cut short. From there, it’s a whirlwind tour through some of the band’s most manic rockers and most somber ballads.
“Bugman” is notable chiefly for its insane vacuum cleaner guitar solo (eat your heart out, Kevin Shields), but “Coffee & TV” is another beast entirely. Featuring Coxon on vocals, the song echoes the urban malaise of the britpop era but couches it in a wonderfully personal, subtly evolving framework that makes full use of its 6 minute length. It sounds perfectly effortless next to even the more accomplished songs of the band’s britpop era.
The rest of the album makes good on the promise of Blur. Where that album feels like imitation, 13 establishes a murky, uniquely spacey sound that fits Blur to a T. “Trailerpark” sounds like the Spiritualized/Gorillaz collaboration that never was, while the epic “No Distance Left to Run” stands as one of Albarn’s purest, most touching ballads. If there was any doubt whether a simplification of lyrics was a good direction for the band to follow, look no further for unassailable proof. “Trimm Trabb” is yet another 13 classic, a clanging shudder of a song that feels like the modern life rubbish heap crashing down around your ears.
Think Tank (2003)
Think Tank is perhaps the most singular album in the Blur repertoire. Graham Coxon left the band during the recording process due to growing inter-band tension and substance abuse problems, and the remains of Blur worked with producer Ben Hillier for the first time. The result is a very different sounding Blur album, and one that more closely resembles Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz project than something like Parklife (or even 13). In spite of all that, it also happens to be one of the band’s most interesting and rewarding listens, full of gorgeously produced and strongly written torch songs. “Out of Time” and “Good Song” stand as two of Albarn’s sweetest, most mature, most direct efforts, followed closely by “Battery in Your Leg,” which sounds like the band’s own eulogy for themselves.
Even when the songwriting isn’t extraordinary, Think Tank’s production is often a wonder to behold on its own. Sampled rhythms, field recordings, and dub-influenced bass lines give the album a drowsily unique pace. Vocal filters dehumanize Albarn’s heartfelt exclamations, and yet the band occasionally give up the funk without warning and with no sense of pretense. Of course, it all goes sour a few times: “Crazy Beat” is Disco Duck-biting garbage heap that Albarn has spent the last decade atoning for, and “We’ve Got a File On You” is yet another “Albarn really wants to write a punk song but seems incapable of doing so” workout (see also: “White Light,” “Bank Holiday”). Still, before the announcement of a reunion album, The Magic Whip (due out in April 2015), Think Tank had long served as a fitting and worthy capstone to Blur’s notable discography.
Words by Tucker Phillips