As Blur - one of Britain’s finest bands - release their first album in twelve years, Clash thought it was the ideal time to take a jog round and round their wondrous back catalogue.
The creative axis of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon is restored for ‘The Magic Whip’ after 2003’s ‘Think Tank’ proved a slightly lopsided affair, the former pressing on with bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree as the latter stood aside. Reunion tours, occasional singles and rapturous welcomes have all paved the way for this remarkable return.
But let’s begin at the start of the Nineties…
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The decade began baggy and label advice was always to watch which way the wind was blowing. ‘Leisure’ is a curious mix of nearly realised promise and tinny time capsule. Armed with the indisputably great single ‘There’s No Other Way’, the band found themselves trying to stretch that particular sound as thinly as possible in order to garner enough material for a debut album. They’ve since reflected that they were lucky to emerge at a time when you weren’t dropped if your first record wasn’t an instant smash, despite ‘Leisure’ having several redeeming features.
The aforementioned song that put them on the map is joined by the hypnotically beguiling and rather claustrophobic ‘Sing’, a six minute centrepiece of musical malevolence that seems out of place and out of time, offering an early hint of how Blur could manipulate and mutate their sound. Throw in the juddering slouch of ‘Repetition’ alongside soaring debut single ‘She’s So High’ and it’s far from being an early embarrassment. Not that it would take them all that long to knock their sound into shape.
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‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ (1993)
The origins of Britpop were formed here, as Albarn emphatically pursued what, at first, seemed a wilfully perverse musical direction indebted to the gleeful permasunshine of Sixties Kinks and the angular jangle of Seventies Brit-rock. It was a bold, foolish riposte to the prevalence of grunge in the early Nineties and was originally rejected by their label until 'Chemical World' and, most notably, 'For Tomorrow' were written in the prior absence of 'big' singles. Their presence certainly enhances the collection, but it’s hardly kicking its heels elsewhere.
Essentially the ‘Parklife’ which didn't suffer from excessive over-playing, ‘Modern Life...’ is wide-eyed and bolshy, the passive conformism of the debut resolutely banished. Albarn wrote about an England in thrall to transatlantic influences with a ferocity and wit that was to define the band at the peak of their powers, characters like ‘Colin Zeal’ and the titular star of ‘Pressure On Julian’ chief amongst this.
However, the most striking thing about a record that is now twenty-two years old remains the vibrancy of the music. The intensity is relentless and the melodies indefatigable. That this was considered uncommercial now seems baffling, hindsight allowing for a rose-tinted glance at a sensational second offering.
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Their imperial phase, when it seemed like the entire alternative music scene had somehow got the keys to the establishment and anyone with a pulse and an electric guitar, plugged in or otherwise, tagged along for the ride. Amongst all the sneering and self-preserving rewriting of history that has occurred in recent retrospectives of the era, there is a danger that this near perfect collection of songs, a genuine embarrassment of riches, gets written off with a whole scene.
While it may have been played incessantly in the past, a listen with relatively fresh ears only serves to underline just what an achievement ‘Parklife’ was. Distilling and developing the sound upon which they had alighted only a year previous, the album would propel the band into the mainstream and spend more than a year and a half in the album chart. Preceded by garrulous shout-along anthem ‘Girls & Boys’, the album quickly came to feel like a Greatest Hits, ‘Tracy Jacks’, ‘Badhead’, ‘London Loves’ and the breath-taking ‘This Is A Low’ all on a par with their chart-conquering chums.
The stately elegance of that last song highlighted the difference between Blur and their many, indistinguishable contemporaries at the time. A capacity for deeply moving melancholy was assured, even if their next move did little to suggest as much.
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‘The Great Escape’ (1995)
Tainted by the chart battle with Oasis fought around one of each band's worst songs, 'The Great Escape' is long due a reappraisal. Scythe off a couple of ill-advised moments - the afore-maligned 'Country House' and the Ken Livingstone voiced 'Ernold Same' - and there is an awkward but ambitious record waiting to get out. T
he majesty of 'The Universal', somehow untainted by commercial overuse, rubs shoulders with the weary 'Best Days' and the relentless caricature of 'Charmless Man'. The frazzled 'Yuko And Hiro' seems no more a natural conclusion now than it did twenty years ago, but that doesn't negate its curiously spaced out charms.
Several weeks after its release, their rivals in the Britpop sitcom unleashed ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’?’ and the narrative turned, implying that Blur were spent and what had seemed bold and refreshing several years ago was now a bit naff. Shorn of the self-serving media glare, the band’s fourth album has weathered rather more gracefully than anyone could have predicted at the time.
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Friendships were broken, Coxon was tired of the oompah and there was nowhere else left for the sound that had defined Blur for almost half a decade. In what was considered something of a sop to the band's mercurial guitarist, scuzzy riffs, low-slung jeans and a bit of American indie were sprinkled across their fifth album.
Partly recorded in Iceland and initially powered by the irrepressible fire of 'Song 2' and a different flame underneath lead single ‘Beetlebum’, 'Blur' is a richly diverse, enjoyably rough-edged collection of some of the band's finest ever songs. Arguably their best record, it all hinges on the artistic tension between Albarn’s irrepressible knack for a tune and Coxon’s sonic wanderlust. The strung out, spliced up jam of ‘Essex Dogs’ closes proceedings, while the sub-ninety second burst of ‘Chinese Bombs’ ensures nobody gets too comfortable in the middle of the album.
That said, for all the talk of wilfully muddying their sound, instead ‘Blur’ perfectly captures the alchemy achieved when these four particular people are in a studio together and on their game. James has since described the sonic shift as “an editorial decision. No more fucking trumpets.”
It’s a fairly effective, enjoyably concise summary of the change, because ‘On Your Own’, ‘Death Of A Party’, ‘Strange News From Another Star’ and the gloriously lopsided ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’ are all richly melodic, beautiful songs. In some circles, it’s defined by two particular minutes even though the other fifty-five are all just as good.
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And off they went again, pouring out heartache and severely creaking friendships through sheer, bloody-minded noise, punctured on occasion by raw beauty. Any record where 'Tender' nestles near 'Bugman', and 'No Distance Left To Run', Albarn's most staggeringly raw vocal to date, shares a tracklist with 'Trailerpark' was going to confuse a few people. With Coxon seemingly trying to destroy his guitars while Albarn bared his soul, the sessions were nevertheless curiously, fiercely productive.
Edited down from sprawling jams by new producer William Orbit, freeing up the band to experiment and explore for hours at a time, some of '13' worked as soundscapes rather than songs. ‘Caramel’, with its almost symmetrical shape, is arguably the highlight of these methods, mutating through an initially downbeat passage, for which the vocal is restrained but weary, into something of a release at the half-way point, instruments rising up out of the mix until a deceptive pause triggers something – other.
Bearing only occasional resemblance to their previous album and at a staggeringly substantial remove from the music that had brought vast swathes of the teen audience to their gigs, it is a visceral, confrontational record. ‘Trimm Trabb’ could, for about four minutes, probably fit on ‘Blur’, but then Albarn emits a howl that is no less striking sixteen years after it was first heard. Whatever these four people needed to work through together, they did it in the most fascinating manner possible. Coxon said that hearing the overnight edits of the previous day’s playing by Orbit and his team was “like hearing a band we weren’t in.”
Even now, ‘13’ still feels like hearing a band we hadn’t known. An album borne of curious circumstances, it’s hard to imagine anyone recording anything quite like it again.
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‘Think Tank’ (2003)
Recently denounced by Albarn as 'not a proper Blur album', 'Think Tank' is nevertheless an intriguing diversion for a band shorn of its special ingredient. The circumstances of its creation are the stuff of legend but, essentially, Coxon’s participation was delayed by rehab and his presence once there was considered to be musically destructive. The sole product of his involvement, ‘Battery In Your Leg’ would seem to contradict this, but when you consider what he was doing on their previous release, it’s not difficult to see how that could have been at odds with the largely languid tone of tracks like ‘Ambulance’, ‘Good Song’ and ‘Brothers and Sisters’.
There are those who suggest that Albarn needs Coxon to keep his more ponderous urges in check and they cite such moments on ‘Think Tank’ as the chief exhibit for the prosecution. Such claims do a disservice to a record that still contains much to enjoy, even if that quite definitely isn’t the ‘hit-by-numbers’ brash nonsense ‘Crazy Beat’, produced by Norman Cook and glaringly out of place alongside one of Albarn’s most simple but beautiful pieces, ‘Out Of Time’.
The garish single was recorded during early sessions for ‘Think Tank’ in Morocco, along with ‘Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club’ and another Cook credit, ‘Gene By Gene’. This additional pair of more lively moments is far less jarring, built around curious found sounds and splashed with widescreen synths. After ‘13’, however, some of the more subdued material offers another take on what Blur can do.
It’s far from perfect, but it proffers a hazy beauty to which its critics seem curiously immune. It’s not difficult to see how, for emotional reasons if nothing else, Albarn feels less than positive about it twelve years on but what came next shouldn’t quite put this one in the shadows.
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‘The Magic Whip’ (2015)
Will they? Won’t they? After a joyous live reconciliation in 2009, a ‘one-off’ single for Record Story Day in 2010, a slightly less joyous but still splendid selection of gigs and another, er, ‘one-off’ single in 2012, the band embarked upon something of a world tour in 2013, taking the four piece back on the road.
Finding themselves with five days free after a cancellation in Hong Kong, they took to the studio, recording various jams worked up out of ideas Albarn had recorded into the Garageband app on his iPad. The typically effusive frontman couldn’t stop himself telling audiences about the recordings and so began talk of a new Blur record.
And then it all went quiet. More than a year later, a restless Coxon asked Albarn if he could have a tinker with the tapes from that concise period and see what could be crafted. ‘The Magic Whip’ is the product of this endeavour, a remarkably cohesive record that has delighted many of the band’s fans. Clash has written elsewhere about its specific qualities, but suffice to say that the creative energy evoked by Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree occupying the same space is no less potent in 2015 than it was twenty-five years ago.
Raucous wonders like ‘Ong Ong’ and ‘I Broadcast’ nestle next to the genuinely stirring honesty of ‘My Terracota Heart’ and the blue-eyed soul of shouldn’t-work-but-it-really-does ‘Ghost Ship’. Whether they ever record together again should not be the primary concern as, sixteen years on from ‘13’, Blur are truly back.
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Words: Gareth James
Catch Blur this summer at the following shows:
9 Glasgow Barrowland
10 Blackpool Empress Ballroom
11 Llandudno Venue Cymru