What happens when a band subverts the subgenre they’ve created?
Article by Dorothy Markek
Rewind to 1992 when the baggy/shoegaze mishmash of Blur's debut Leisure drew criticism for reflecting both scenes without standing out in either. A drunken, disastrous tour of the States gave Food Records reason further to drop the band.
What more could go wrong?
Oh yes, the rise of Suede, fronted by the provocative Bret Anderson. He was the ex-boyfriend of Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s new girlfriend Justine Frischmann (of the-soon-to-form Elastica).
Chart success arrived eventually, though, thanks to that glorious Britpop trilogy. From 1993’s Modern Life is Rubbish, to 1994’s era defining, chart topping Parklife, through to its (prophetic) end with The Great Escape in 1995.
By 1996 Blur were at breaking point; bored with Britpop, at odds with each other and tired of the bizarre tabloid circus that followed their rivalry with Oasis.
Another change-up was necessary. Again fuelled by restlessness, jealousy, a change of scenery and (some might say) genius.
Albarn came to appreciate Coxon’s long-term love of American lo-fi, alt rock bands like Pavement, Pixies and Sonic Youth. Recognising the need for change, he gave the guitarist more creative input.
At around the same time Albarn was drawn to Iceland to escape the media scrutiny over his relationship with Frischmann. He eventually brought the band and producer Stephen Street to Reykjavík to finish recording the album.
Released in February 1997, Blur’s self-titled album was a shift, both sonically and lyrically. They retained one crucial element of their Britpop success: Stephen Street, producer of their previous three albums.
It's a risky move kicking off a make or break album with songs about taking heroin and feeling “heavy metal”, as they did with 'Beetlebum'. Between that song's oblique lyrics and 'Song 2'’s stream of conscious babble, it’s any wonder they landed a 1-2 on the singles chart. In recent years Albarn has expressed surprise at the media’s failure to pick up on 'Beetlebum'’s narcotic undertone.
Few would have thought an unfinished, throwaway song with a joke title would become the band’s entree to the mainstream here and in the US. 'Song 2' reached #4 on the Australian chart and #2 (ahem) in triple j’s Hottest 100 of 1997.
'Song 2' is a strange combination of dance floor filler meets mosh pit meets karaoke slam down and the closest the album comes to danceable. Not only does Graham Coxon create one of the greatest guitar riffs of all time, his increasing influence over the band’s sound is evident throughout. Free to unleash his unschooled virtuosity, Coxon’s riffs and chord slides match the snark of Albarn’s vocals.
The loping mosey of 'Country Sad Ballad Man' is soon left for dead by the looping quick draw of 'M.O.R.' - the video for the single filmed in Sydney and starring our finest stuntmen... and Noah Taylor. The similarity in chord progression to 'Boys Keep Swinging' earned David Bowie and Brian Eno a writing credit.
Albarn has called 'On Your Own' an early Gorillaz tune. The clue is not only in the line "no psycho killer, hooligan gorilla", but also its sing song feel. Minus Coxon’s crunchy guitar it would have nicely segued into 'Feel Good Inc.'. It’s the sound of an early midlife crisis, a defeatist kind of sequel to the pleasure seeking pack mentality of 'Girls and Boys'.
Coxon’s childlike delivery and the simple sentiment of 'You’re So Great' marks the guitarist’s first lead vocal. He follows the next year with his first solo album The Sky Is Too High and the sublime 'Coffee & TV' on Blur’s next album 13.
One of my favourite Blur sounds, the creepy organ, returns for the sinister and cynical 'Death of a Party'. It's Albarn’s meditation on soulless, endless hedonism as by-product of success. The punk frenzy of 'Chinese Bombs' is another fun, nonsensical burst of energy and shows their interest in the East goes back further than present day critics might think.
'I’m Just a Killer for Your Love' is a T-Rex song tossed in the rinse cycle and pulled out at the wrong speed. With 'Look Inside America' Albarn calls truce, recalling and somewhat enjoying life on the road “we played last night, it was a good show” set to a tempered 'Country House' stomp. His wailing, half sober vocal and Coxon’s abrasive guitar contrasts with the flutter of strings and harps.
The weary loneliness of 'Strange News From Another Star' is a world away from the narcotic safety blanket of 'Beetlebum' while 'Movin’ On' rounds out the list of shouty songs that may actually contain profound symbolism if we could work out the bloody words.
'Essex Dogs' is six minutes of slow beat poetry set to drone, admittedly a “challenging” way to end an album. It’s replicated in a sense in 'Hollow Ponds' from Albarn’s solo Everyday Robots album.
The success of the album meant the small Britpop-loving tribes down under finally saw their heroes in October/November ’97. Blur Fan Club member #3495 was lucky enough to see them three times in Sydney.