Musical Epiphanies #6 – Blur (1997)

This is a bit of a twist from the usual offering, a jump away from the punk and new wave motif of the blog, but I must admit that Blur were a huge part of my musical education throughout my teenage years.

Say what you will about them – middle class, London centric, Mockney etc – but their contribution to the music scene of the 1990s is utterly undeniable. From Leisure to Think Tank (excluding 2015’s The Magic Whip), I had a huge love for practically every song released, and – it must be mentioned, I’m afraid – believe that they were a million ranks above anything Oasis released. I’ve found myself in the minority with this opinion, but for me Blur have the albums , Oasis have the singles.

However, my listening to 1995’s The Great Escape was a very moot point in my discoveries. It was tired, gimmicky Britpop that didn’t particularly spark any great interest from me. ‘Charmless Man’ and ‘Stereotypes’ are excellent songs, but ‘Country House’ and other similar tracks were simply lacking in any imagination for my liking.

A change was needed, and a change was made. Punk loving guitarist Graham Coxon (who has covered Mission of Burma’s ‘That’s When I Reach For My Revolver’ on a solo record) proposed a move down a grungey, lo-fi and distorted avenue that was practically untouched by their previous albums and still a strong force in the American music scene, a region where Blur were continual recipients of mass indifference to their releases (see their 1992 tour for Modern Life Is Rubbish for further reference).

When I came to listen to 1997’s eponymous album, I wasn’t expecting much after The Great Escape. I knew ‘Song 2’, as we all do, but that was about it. I held hope for a change of sound and an increase in quality, an escape from Britpop once and for all.

Little did I know that album opener ‘Beetlebum’ had reached #1 on the singles chart, and I could see why. It’s still got a bit of Blur-pop sound about it, but that’s the point of a promotional single, isn’t it?

Besides, how can you resist the drop into the chorus on Damon Albarn’s ‘And when she lets me slip away’? Something I discovered a few listens after was that ‘she’ is in fact heroin, with the song somewhat sensually detailing Albarn and then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann’s (singer of Elastica) exploits on the drug. Admittedly, after a few listens it does lose a touch of spark, but is still a solid track nonetheless.

We move on to ‘Song 2’, the most well-known release of Blur’s repertoire in my opinion. It’s one of those songs that, on occasional listening, is an absolute stunner, which has been claimed to have taken 15 minutes to write. For me, it’s a little overplayed to really take me as it did on first listen, but it’s a classic that will probably stand the test of time eternally.

We’re then greeted by the first serving of acoustic lo-fi promised by the stylistic change. I adore ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’ completely, the absurdity of Albarn’s alto into falsetto singing is brilliant, and the beat is one you can really nod your head to. Additionally, some other worldly noises compliment the composition superbly, particularly the damp keyboard line after the first chorus, which is a wonderful hit of discord. Revisiting this song is an absolute joy for me, taking me back to summer walks into school when I was around 15. And with the final minute crash of distortion and punch, it’s an astounding, nostalgic listen.

‘M.O.R.’ is a less memorable song, and somehow a single, which seems a little bit thrown together to my ears. I can imagine Coxon loving the writing of this song – he has total liberty, the guitar line jumping carelessly between octaves and destroying any idea of string-based mundanity. However, as a track it isn’t one that sticks around in the mind for too long.

‘On Your Own’ is the only real notable down point in the album. It’s too weird and bouncy, there’s a disagreement between the rough guitar line and the chanty chorus that just doesn’t match, and it is simply forgettable. A bit harsh, but it’s never been my cup of tea unfortunately.

Now we visit the second absolutely mesmerising track of the album. A creeping, villainous tune which is a lesson in the execution of a disconcerting masterpiece. ‘Theme From Retro’ is quite simply perfect. It’s like a demented circus theme; Rowntree’s slams of the snare drums are so satisfying, the echoey vocals of Albarn are all the more rewarding, but the star of the show is the contrarily macabre and jaunty keyboard line which unsettles in every way possible. It’s another song that takes me back to my first listen of the album, a song that completely blew my mind forever.

And as soon as that ends, Coxon takes centre stage in, what is for me, one of the greatest Blur tracks of all time, if not one of the greatest alternative tracks of all time. An emotional and endearing song, ‘You’re So Great’ flips the album’s mood out of no where, but is forever a welcome addition to the record. The tone of the guitar is fantastic, and Coxon’s high pitched vocals are stunning (though I understand some may be averse to them). The lyrics are miserable (the first line goes ‘Sad, drunk and poorly, sleep in really late / Sad, drunk and poorly / Not feeling so great’) the strings melancholic, and the solos throughout so utterly brilliant. The final strums of the guitar at the end just hit home the sadness and the desperation. An absolute stunner.

‘Death Of A Party’ follows, a similarly dark tune but with a little less oomph (that’s a word commonly used by musical experts, I assure you). The guitar line in the chorus is brilliant, and again the drums of Rowntree stand out, but as a whole it’s a worthy experimental effort, though not the most successful. I’d comment that Albarn’s vocal tone doesn’t really fit with the vibe of the song, owing to its lack of cohesion.

‘Chinese Bombs’ is just Coxon’s guitar on steroids, a fantastic interlude of distorted mess that brings the toughness back to the record. It’s swiftly succeeded by the weirdly funky yet dark ‘I’m Just A Killer For Your Love’. It has a strong beat, but offers little in terms of unpredictability and variation. The drums again are brilliant, though.

‘Look Inside America’ is a bit of a throwback to Britpop era Blur, a more dreamy and upbeat number that could slip into Modern Life Is Rubbish or The Great Escape quite easily. The first line ‘Good morning lethargy’ is one of my favourite Blur lines of all time simply because it’s sung with such an ironic faux-triumph, but the song is another one which isn’t particularly memorable.

The fourth track of utter perfection comes next. A lot of recording for the album was completed in Iceland, a typical destination for artists in search for inspiration, a route taken by the likes of The Fall in the early 1980s for their album Hex Enduction Hour and Radiohead in the same year as Blur for their seminal album OK Computer. ‘Strange News From Another Star’ was one of the tracks recorded in Iceland and is so clearly inspired by its surroundings, but is indisputably superb.

Starting with fuzzy guitar sounds, a cleaner acoustic comes in, joined quickly by Albarn’s soft vocals, announcing ‘All I wanna be / Is washed up by the sea’. It’s extremely mellow, very relaxed but still holds a mild touch of discordant other-worldliness. I’d imagine this to be a Radiohead song more than anything else, but again Blur show that they can mix it up and step out of the pop-rock comfort zone. Frankly, it’s beautiful.

The penultimate ‘Movin’ On’ is another half-throwback to Britpop days, a positively hedonistic headbanger. Albarn’s singing reminds me a little of Howard Devoto’s on Spiral Scratch track ‘Boredom’ – less words or vocals, more just a conglomeration of various noises to fit the track. It works well here too, and it’s a song that I’d dismissed for a while.

Now then. This is the standout moment of the album. After some playing around at the end of ‘Movin’ On’, we end the album with a much deadlier beast. Coxon’s guitar coughs into life like a car engine, a slow, repetitive machine gun-like cutting which is accompanied with another fantastically sinister Rowntree beat. It is epically gloomy.

Albarn murmurs gently:

‘I remember thinking murder in the car / Watching dogs somersault through sprinklers on tiny lawns

 I remember the graffiti / We are your children coming in with spray cans of paint

 I remember the sunset and the plains of cement / And the way the night seems to turn the colour of Orangeade’

A a tale of urban decay, greyness, destitution, ‘Essex Dogs’ is one of the forgotten Blur tracks that deserved so much more. Albarn’s execution is precise, neat and utterly fitting. With this comes a slow dancing bass line of Alex James, combatting the choppy guitar line with elongated picks superbly.

The chorus comes in, even more dark than the verse:

In this town cellular phones are hot with thieves / In this town we all go to terminal pubs 

It helps us sweat out those angry bits of life / From this twon the English Army grind their teeth to glass 

You’ll get kicked tonight / Smell of puke and piss / Smell of puke and piss on your stilettos

And then we’re welcomed by a new drum groove and fantastic fuzzes of guitar, quietly growing in the backdrop. What sounds like an electronic drill comes in on Albarn’s ‘My heart stops / Then starts’. The verse again is chilling, James taking centre stage for a moment before Coxon is freed from his leash. The machine gun-like sound is now at full power, it grows and grows and doesn’t stop, before revolving around one angry note for what seems an unnerving but so satisfying eternity.

Back into the subdued beat, and Coxon remains up front and livid; who knew repeating two notes over and over would be so powerful? It’s ‘Baby’s On Fire’-esque, with Coxon given the freedom of Fripp to explore every avenue of unsettling and discordant noise. Every two seconds the same riff crashes in with immense strength and shock. It’s so addictive, so utterly brilliant. James’ bassline is still dancing across every fret of the strings with utter precision, a beautifully maintained and controlled backing to offset Coxon’s raging thrashes of the lead.

With a final roll and high pitched wail, all calms down on the Coxon front, before a brooding bass line and drum beat settle the nerves of all listening, with Coxon’s guitar giving off a soft, occasional purr before an abrupt wrapping up of the debacle.

A brief interlude follows, and Blur’s first step into new musical pastures departs with a slow fade out.

For 15 year old me, this absolutely changed everything. I’d listen to ‘Essex Dogs’ every day to accompany my adolescent angst so wonderfully. I’m pretty sure I played it to some friends and they were quite worried for my mental state, but what an absolutely stunning closing track this is.

For the album, I first listened to it during the start of my love for all things punk and new wave, so it couldn’t have come at a better time. But I will forever place this album in my top ten of all time. Not particularly for its quality, but more for the impact it had on me and the absolute shift in sound taken by Blur to release such an album at their commercial peak. For me, if you take away a few songs, I believe you have a perfect album.

Like Blur or not, this is a powerful and brilliant effort which played a huge part in shaping my music taste and unlocked doors to music of gloominess, wonder and darkness forever,