By: Eric G.
“What’s fifty feet long and has no pubes? Front row of a Blur gig.” This joke by Blur bassist Alex James can surely no longer be true. Perhaps, back in 1995 when Blur reached cartoon-size proportions with singles like “Country House” and “Charmless Man” hot on the heals of their mammoth Parklife album this type of teen hype was an unwanted norm, but since 1997 when Blur released Blur, its self-titled fifth album, a massive reinvention was underway that took the band’s sound to infinitely noisier sonic plateaus. Despite the knuckleheaded “Song 2” (a brilliant song in its own right but, admittedly, without substance), Blur was an unprecedented departure for a band that practically (and ironically) started a movement in its home country with Britpop.
With Blur the band established credibility with itself- a task that seemed unlikely only a year before when the band’s private lives were not uncommon fodder for the tabloids and the teen rags. Premature accusations that the band was ‘Americanizing’ its sound or trying to sound like Pavement fell away in the face of universally heartfelt songs like “Beetlebum” and Coxon’s touching “You’re So Great.” Blur returns two years later a much wiser and confident band. 13 is the band’s most ambitious statement to date. It is a challenging and, at times, difficult record, but the rewards are worth the repeated listens it demands for full appreciation.
It’s taken Damon Albarn several albums finally to break away from speaking to his audience through characters and inanimate objects. 13 reveals Albarn’s true emotions, however oblique. The first single, “Tender”, is a soulful blues ballad with heart-on-your-sleeve lyrics presumably about Albarn’s ex- Elastica frontwoman, Justine Frischmann: “Tender is the night/lying by your side/tender is the touch/of someone that you love too much.” A huge gospel choir joins Albarn’s falsetto chirp in the chorus, bringing a very Rolling Stones-meets-Give Peace A Chance authenticity to its lazy clap along gait. “Tender” is a ballsy curveball to throw at American audiences who were just starting to give Blur the time of day after “Song 2”, but it just goes to show that Blur isn’t concerned with conquering America anymore.
“Bugman” takes the gist of Bowie’s “Suffragette City” to warp-speed and shreds and shrieks its way through your speakers, cleverly disguising its glam-rock underbelly with effects-laden interludes. Coxon assumes lead vocals on “Coffee & TV” while Albarn chimes in with his treacly falsetto for the chorus. The song is 13’s lone catchy pop song, and its brilliance lies in its simplicity. By “Swamp Song” it is clear that 13 is going places no one ever could have predicted Blur could go on record, and with “Caramel” 13 lives up to its hype. “1992” again revisits Albarn’s personal life with obscure allusions to his life with Justine: “You’d love my bed/you took the other instead”, but it’s the haunting fragility of “No Distance Left To Run” that truly opens up old wounds: “It’s over/you don’t have to tell me/I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleeping tonight/I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life.”
13 blends so many genres from prog to punk to blues to glam that it seems to transcend the label ‘pop music’, especially when you compare it to some of Blur’s overtly pop albums like Parklife or The Great Escape. It’s this level of experimentation that separates generic rock bands from bands that actually make challenging music. Bands like Blur.