Now is a good time to be a Blur fan. The band’s triumphant concert on the last night of the London Olympics was only the high point in a wave of revivalism that has been rising around them all year.
Back in the ‘90s, Blur were the heroes of Britpop – a resurgence in classic British songwriting that swept through the country for a few short but incredible years, led by the trinity of Oasis, Pulp, and Blur. Oasis were a great band but a narrow one, never straying far from their basic stomping rock template; and Pulp were wildly and diversely creative, but always a bit too weird to be fully embraced by the nation. Yet Blur were both a massive cultural phenomenon, quickly becoming standard-bearers for young, cool, resurgent Britain, and a rock band of extraordinary talent and originality.
They’ve just released a lavish box set containing all seven of their albums, plus extras; but if you’re new to the band, you probably won’t want to shell out the money for such a behemoth. So here’s an album-by-album rundown to help you build up your Blur collection a bit more modestly. Of course, if you’re already a fan, you can always have fun rediscovering them.
Like their major contemporaries Radiohead and Nirvana, Blur give barely a hint of future greatness on their debut record. The young band are clearly in thrall to the shoegaze movement, and they stick very close to that already well-trodden path. But since they’re not yet writing good melodies, the result is not hazy bliss but droning tedium. Skip this one – there is so much better music lying ahead.
Modern Life is Rubbish (1993)
A recent poll by Q found that this is UK listeners’ favourite Blur album by a very large margin. That’s fitting for a record about the squalor and romance of everyday life in a very distinctly English setting. Modern Life is Rubbish gets a bit samey, with a long and cynical parade of character sketches and social satires that are all clever, but not always interesting. But overall it’s a bracing and surprising record with plenty of strong guitar pop tunes and a great deal of wit. Blur’s reputation as the heirs to the Kinks – via the Smiths – rests here.
This is the gold at the heart of the legend – the album that not only made Blur into superstars, but united a nation behind British music and British culture as something to be proud of once again. Parklife gathers strands from the last three decades of pop and weaves them into a modern yet timeless kaleidoscope that sounds classic after one whirlwind listen. Damon Albarn has hit maturity as a songwriter, and he revels in it. “Girls and Boys” is Europop with attitude. “Tracy Jacks” and “Parklife” are funny, cool and muscular rock songs. “Far Out” is a tingly pop tune about astronomy. “Badhead,” “To the End” and “This is a Low” are models of swooning, gorgeous pathos. Every song surprises, and even today the whole record sounds bold, vibrant, and bursting with melody and ideas. It’s awesome.
The Great Escape (1995)
To say that The Great Escape is basically Parklife, Part II – only less good – is harsh, but essentially correct. Basking in the limelight at the height of Britpop mania, and trying half-heartedly not to get tugged into the silly debate on whether they were better than Oasis, Blur do little more than stick to their holding pattern. That’s okay though, because it’s a wonderful pattern. The second half of the album drags, with the band’s now-trademark eclecticism becoming tiresome rather than exciting. But the first half is great, featuring the superb “Charmless Man” and the even better “The Universal,” which has deservedly become their standard concert closer.
You’re the central band in a movement you spearheaded, but you’re sick of that scene and you want to break free. So of course, you look across the Atlantic and you embrace the genre that most of your country has been resisting for most of this decade: noisy alternative guitar rock. The result: you create “Song 2” and it becomes your biggest ever single, mostly thanks to people who don’t realise you only wrote it to poke fun at Nirvana. But that doesn’t matter, because you also create an album that sits comfortably with the best of Sonic Youth and Pavement. It’s much less varied than your last two records, but who really cares when you can make an electric guitar sound so damn good?
“I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe when you sleep.” That might be the most affecting line in all of Blur. Damon utters it on the heartbreaking “No Distance Left to Run,” one of the gems on what is (mostly) his break-up album. Sadly though, much of the record falls short of that mark. The opening track “Tender” feels like a great song held down by a wooden performance, though its real glory can be heard on several concert versions. There are also a few too many jarring noise-rockers, which don’t sit well with the slower moments. One suspects that Damon Albarn, whose weakness has always been that he has much more cleverness than self-discipline, couldn’t quite bring himself to cut the running time by ten minutes and give this album’s underlying gentleness some breathing space. That said, much of 13 is still sad and powerful music. It’s definitely worth a listen.
Think Tank (2003)
Depending on whom you ask, Think Tank is either a thrilling adventure in indie electro-pop, or a confused mess of undeveloped ideas with much more style than substance. It’s easily the most divisive Blur album. This reviewer resides in the second camp, and feels obligated to point out that Damon Albarn had already given us an electro-pop adventure much better than this one anyway, when he made the first Gorillaz album two years previously. But Think Tank does contain some treasures, including the classic “Out of Time,” and the neglected closer “Battery in Your Leg”. That last song is wrapped achingly around a descending twelve-note piano line that simply cries out with melancholy beauty. It’s the perfect final bow from this band.
It’s becoming more and more common to hear Blur called the greatest band of the ‘90s. Given that their competition includes Radiohead and Pavement, that’s a tough call. But it’s hard to think of another band who covered so much territory, delved into so many different styles, and did it all so consistently well. Blur may not have been the best ‘90s band, but they were perhaps the definitive one. And their music is brilliant. Quite simply, these albums have not grown old.