A year ago Jokerside celebrated the 20th anniversary of Parklife with a terrible commemorative re-writing of THAT song. Now, nearly 20 years after Blur made their Britpop swansong, 12 years after their last album, they return with their fourth ‘-post’ effort. So, now they’re undeniably less of a Britpop band then they were, what have they really done in the intervening two decades?
IT’S ALMOST 20 YEARS SINCE THEIR LAST BRITPOP RELEASE, ABOUT 16 SINCE THEIR LAST ALBUM AS A FOURPIECE, BUT BLUR HAVE STILL MANAGED TO PACK A BIT IN. THREE SEMINAL ALBUMS IN FACT. The game changing eponymous album released less than two years after The Great Escape, the mystical and Gorillaz unleashing 13 and then, with a four year gap and one of the four departed, the soft oddity Think Tank. Post-Britpop Blur may not have been quite as consistent as during the first four albums, but with the eighth out today it’s clear that the turbulence saw them produce some of their greatest tracks.
If there’s an adage that’s come out of The Magic Whip coverage it’s that the older the Blur album, the more you can write about it. Or perhaps, the more you need to write about it. That’s partly down to the fact that every paragraph has to begin with variations of “Jettisoning” ‘Abandoning” and “Dispensing” alongside “Britpop persona”. But now, 15 years into the 21st century, Blur have definitely tipped the balance. And fundamentally Think Tank is far more interesting than Parklife. Blur’s canvas has massively enhanced with each difficult and different album. And it’s not as simple as third person stereotypes making way for first person observation or losing their guitarist. Much of the time Blur’s music remains remarkably consistent, just interpreted and broadened by high production at different times and different places, and crucially by increasingly more accomplished and motivated musicians (People. Of. The. World). As a result Lonesome Road, the third single from The Magic Whip, can merrily sit side to side with 1993’s For Tomorrow as not only an unmistakable Blur song but a fine companion piece.
But before the new album, here’s a look at 12 Blur tracks that came after they “Removed themselves from Britpop”. Not the 12 best, but 12 of the best from the last 19 years that tell a story of one of Britain’s finest bands.
It’s a list fraught with problems. How can you look at the almost entirely Coxon-free Think Tank just before his glorious return to the line-up? How can Stephen Street’s sterling work producing 1997’s Blur even be compared to the quest for name producers in the 21st century?
And mainly, why don’t more bands take the risks Blur did?
Tame (The Great Escape, B-side, 1996)
“My absence is due”
First off a cheat, not only the sole B-side, but one from The Great Escape’s third single – the altogether more atypically Blur Stereotypes. Tame shares a name with a Pixie song among others, and certainly sits difficulty against the fourth album’s drawn and weakest single B-siding the previous release The Universal, There are No Monsters in Me had pushed, but its Tame that lays the most claim to starting something new. The quirky “las” had made way to the endless robot rock refrain of “Tame”, the guitar ground and dark. There’s plenty of Britpop Blur left over – although the synth winds less predictable than their general Britpop fare. It’s still Damon wandering around town, but here his pleading vocals form a bridge through lyrics that ask permission as much as they observe London life. Graham leans heavy on his guitar while the rhythm’s left prominent and distorted. It’s this break and drip feeding, heavy echo and permanent rustle percussion that refuses to roll back for the second verse that’s the killer. It’s a discordant, brilliant mess and on a different spectrum. Unrelenting, yet catchy, It’s a far cry from punning Kinks-facing Ultranol, itself a B-side just a few months before. It’s sorrowful, almost confessional, as the confused vocals actually get less gravelly as the song progresses to the chant of “Tame” that quite possibly may never end. Something was brewing.
BeetleBum (Blur, first single, 1997)
“Now what you’ve done”
In 1997, just two years after the much publicised spat with Oasis and the band’s wilful disassociation from Britpop, the eponymous Blur arrived in the late winter… With a single that couldn’t have spelled out a band’s autumnal spell better. Premiered on Radio 1, much discussed and correctly to a point, heralded as something new. Gone was the Benny Hill video that launched the last album, this promo was darker as were the lyrics, censoring brands and spliffs rather than cleavage. Much was made of the Beatles influence hidden in the track, often taken as a final Pyrrhic wounding shot in the war that Oasis had won. The fab four sit near-mentioned in the title, the melody and composition riffing while not copying some of their songs. The chatter, the extended coda where Coxon’s guitar endlessly asks questions before answering itself (refreshed by Coxon force-feeding himself American alternative), the lyrics referencing Happiness is a Warm Gun... But yes, aside from a band whose sound felt far more balanced and were now looking across the Atlantic to contemporary artists and not the Village Green Preservation Societies of the 1960, the lyrics had changed altogether. Beetlebum removes much of Albarn’s trademark third person observation, something that would only surface on the album as ghosts rather than stereotype. Out was the word play and innuendo, in was coarser reality and metaphor, albeit not the most subtle. When combined with the perfect 02.02 second single at the second position on the album, Blur had clearly metamorphosed in little over a year, and with little sign of a chrysalis.
M.O.R (Blur, fourth single, 1997)
“You, me, we’ll work it out!”
From the Beatles to Bowie and Eno. A third experiment in the same chord progression that had yielded Boys Keep Swinging and Fantastic Voyage in Lodger – and one that became a little more authorised after legal intervention. It’s a fair cry away from the 1970s, helping to flesh out Blur’s new-found contemporary and hardened sound with easy melody that made was carried on to fellow late single On your Own. Viewed in the vein of Britpop Blur, there’s a slight loss of character. Britpop was never the happiest of waves, but now every ‘la’ or production quirk seems to carry a cynical or sarcastic tone. The flow of Blur hadn’t been diverted, it was just bouncing off different stones. And the band were more ready than ever to engage with the past masters.
You’re So Great (Blur, album track, 1997)
“City’s alive, a surprise, so am I”
At last Blur released Graham – long after Alex got to wrangle his tonsils around constellations on Parklife’s Far Out. The order looked like it was being knocked and that’s the kind of stuff that the music press live on. Here, following the mandatory instrumental song that had survived the band’s transition came Coxon’s sweet love song. Distorted and ‘poorly’ recorded of course, it makes the American centre of the fifth album of a band who’d four years before been pushed to Britpop by a disastrous American tour. They’d once talked of Magic America but would soon ask us to Look Inside America. Coxon had always been there of course, the second singer to Albarn, but with renewed power in the process more was to come. The Blur album experiment was a marked success, despite many misgivings. A civil war had created a band that would not only start an album by jamming as default, but push themselves with ever LP.
Essex Dogs (Blur, album track, 1997)
“In this town we all go to terminal pubs”
A wonderfully album closer – it’s comparable with Parklife classic This is a Low, but of course it just has to be totally different. Damon talks us through this time, its title literal but harking on the darker side of Straw Dogs. A wander through Essex but its production makes it sound more like Twin Peaks. Mixing vocal recording with differing, stuttering guitar chainsaws, in some ways it completes the dream spectrum back to Beetlebum, while making sure the band gets all the discord out of its system on the way. It’s also brilliantly perverse on an album that, while never showing Razorlight (apologies for the reference) levels of American fawning, seemed to have at least one eye trained over the Atlantic. This is something else, and defiantly English. No, not the easiest to listen to, but a fine finish to an album almost entirely packed out with classic songs. And best of all, while the strongest close of any Blur album, it left no indication where the band would go next as they careered towards the end of a century.
Coffee & TV (13, second single, 1999)
“So we can start all over again”
Two years on and much had changed. Stephen Street was parked in favour of William Orbit, a producer who simply didn’t know the band so well. The four were disparate as recording took place between London and Reykjavik and the unified lo-fi alt rock of Blur was lost in the process. While it’s no surprise that 13 is Blur’s most distant album, it’s a brilliant one that it came hot on the heels of one of their most cohesive. The shunning of even a Blur logo robs 13 of some authority and perhaps that’s quite right. As Orbit suggested, Coxon’s punk aesthetic won out over Albarn’s quest for experimentation and yet it remains one of their most experimental. In a fragmenting band Coxon had won the album cover and an even larger role, sharing lyrics on first single Tender then taking the on this song often fondly remembered for its lactose muppet video. It’s an oddity, a rather irresistible oddity within 13 as it nominally looks back to Blur’s Britpop days. And with an odd effect. It’s quite possibly the song that broke the band in America at long last, consolidating Song 2’s sterling work. Of course, beyond the milk cartons was Coxon’s thinly veiled description of alcohol strife. Like You’re so Great, there was always coffee. As with many songs on the album, Coffee &TV features a coda final song, one that’s tellingly converted into an ascension by the video.
1992 (13, second single, 1999)
“But don’t you feel low”
In many ways 13 is a butterfly net as much as much as a melting pot. Swamp Song was elevated from a B-Side at the last minute, while 1992 is named after the year it was written; only to be lost and the demo discovered by Damon around the time of Blur. It’s a fascinating clash of the Blur of Leisure reworked by their older, more jaded selves. The throbbing feedback guitar and low wall of sound of their first album remains, but that tone and sombre lyrics places it nicely (miserably?) into an album mostly concerned with break-up. It’s almost the track that cancelled out Britpop for good.
Battle (13, album track, 1999)
“What do you think of now?”
Space permeates rock and while Blur were never as captivated as say Bowie, it pops up again and again. Earth just isn’t big enough after all. 13 is beyond science-fiction, like the cover suggest it rounds out to conceptual, primal to metaphor – and Battle is the distracting, shimmering mid-point. With the cutesy toney from outer space. It’s nearly eight minutes of a battle, an onslaught of stuttering chain guitar, and single tone melody that only just keeps things neck high above the throbbing percussion and dropped bass. Caramel would later take this on to tumult. Extraordinary stuff, sat nestled in an album without which there quite possibly wouldn’t have been any Gorilaz.
Out of Time (Think Tank, first single, 2003)
“Gone to the future, way out in space”
13 was almost squandered as a concept album around relationships and their ending – considering that the follow-up saw the departure of a core member of the group. For Think Tank Damon had pursued a name producer, and just maybe ended up with Neptunes, Fatboy Slim, William Orbit, Ben Hillier and the Dust Brothers at various points. This time the production facilities took in London and Morocco. Oh, and Graham left after some awkward afternoons. The result was a softer and surprisingly more cohesive album, with acoustic guitar and sublime production replacing what was once inconceivable – one of the greatest guitarists of his generations. The opening single sums it up, melodic, music of the world with melody’s far exceeding the expectations of a decade before. The lyrics that could relate to Coxon’s departure hang sadly in the band’s discography, but the video makes it clear what this song’s really all about at the start of a very difficult time in British foreign policy.
Good Song (Think Tank, Third single, 2003)
“I could be lying on an atom bomb”
Unlike 13, Think Tank’s packed with generally short and sweet numbers – and do they come sweeter than this? Converting the melodic robot rock lyrics into the instrumentation, producer Ben Hillier provides the soft looping and turntable work that sum up one of Blur’s best produced albums. And if the soft brilliance of the song wasn’t enough, the captivating video by David Shrigley and Shynola can brighten any day, capturing the black comedy perfectly. Another album with only three single releases, this final release earned the band their lowest placing since 1993.
On the Way to the Club (Think Tank, album track, 2003)
“The music’s made that way”
Think Tank saw the polished though lessened group through 17 or so tracks in the first four weeks, with uber-engineer James Dring hugely advancing the process of pulling Damon’s demos into the studio through his skill and familiarity with the band. On the Way to the Club, a third of the way is one of the best examples of how this process led to unexpected results. A demo that markedly changed when quickly laid out in lyrics and percussion, and found time for a slice of Dave Rowntree on guitar. Another great melody, seemingly pulled out of nowhere. More classic Blur, reinterpreted by new sensibilities.
Battery in Your Leg (Think Tank, album track, 2003)
“This is a ballad for the good times”
The album closer that just has to be included as the only track to make it to the album press with any amount of Coxon. Moving from the opening piano lines through to a quick haunting echo and high ranged, stretched Albarn… Before guitar tries to sink it to hell and James’ bass just does enough to keeps it above water. And repeat. Only occasionally working in the same direction until rippling back to piano. An intoxicating closing track, discordant, with guitar lines that pierced and chime to the end like a peel of church bells. The only song that’s really Blur on a, challenging, enigmatic but hugely likeable album. “You can be with me…” And so, without a hidden track, it ends.
Next on Jokerside: The Magic Whip reviewed…
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