Blur: A Jumbled Retrospective - By Volume

What is this life, why do we strive? Fast on a wheel, too fast to feel. One day, my love, this life will slow. Sam Brookes - One Day
Blur - The Great Escape

Blur: A Jumbled Retrospective

Robin Smith remembers falling in love with the Britpop pioneers. Author: on August 23, 2012
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It’s not like I can remember growing up with Blur. I was too young for that. Or anyway, it’s their fault, since in 1993 they were just getting the Britpop thing started; I only began caving into this subliminally patriotic underworld after it was over. As Damon Albarn states in my favourite of Blur songs, “he’s a twentieth century boy!” and I guess he was right – the twenty-first didn’t treat him quite right, or understand his band’s own personal paranoia for the new millennia. And even then, I had a shadow of the band in mind. Around 2002, which must put me past about nine years old, I picked up on Blur as I like to imagine most people my age would have: as the remnants of my brother’s more sophisticated collection, and with a growing weariness for British pop saps like Coldplay and Travis, which inhabited my young existentialist’s walkman for those few dramatic years.

Damon Albarn

The album, though, opened my mind in ways it really had no authority to. It was The Great Escape, a fair album in its own right, but not remembered by critics with the same impassioned declarations of artistry as 13 or even Parklife; save its defining singles, “Country House” and “Universal,” this was one of Blur’s unremarkable career moments, floating high on the success of their breakout but happy to just roll through the chart war. And yet I came to know Blur, at this tender age, as a band of one masterpiece and a few surrounding singles that belonged to places unknown. The Great Escape was at the centre – it seemed like the ultimate package of art house, an intelligent, oft political manifesto as far as I understood that world. I would never know that this, Ken Livingstone’s bizarre poetry reading included, was destiny. I had never heard anything as quixotic as this Blur; the tinges of horror leaking from the synthesizers, and the heightening of petty suburban dramas… the sprawling near-double album of fifteen tracks. It seemed like I’d finally found this thing people were calling “real music.” Or so I thought – to everyone else, The Great Escape was Blur moving houses, shifting from young cockney-eyed sneering into the smart experimental band that alienated on the same artistic level as Radiohead. From songs about dustbins and cuppas (trust me, guys, I’m a Brit) to eight-minute soul jams with new age ideas like love being the greatest thing.

You didn’t see the styles conflicting on The Great Escape; it was just an alternative album sung by a guy with a southern accent. Mostly, it was about sex, TV and England, through a lens. And yet I still think of it as a kooky masterpiece made an hour away from me; a truly experimental album at least in tone, and so it stuck with me in ways Oasis didn’t. Was it because I couldn’t identify with Manchester lads? Mainly I think it was just because Blur seemed, somehow, like they weren’t so much in the song-making business as the “making art” business. Whatever that was. “Yuko & Hiro” started with weird, limping guitar abstractions and played out so fragmented I never really realised it was a love song. I marvelled in the self-referential, anagrammed lyrics of “Dan Abnormal” and saw “Ernold Sane” as an atmospheric, mood-setting interlude. The Great Escape was an alt guitar-rock album preferring to dangle off the edge like the band had caught wind of something bigger. People often say Blur found Pavement after all this, but it was something weirder, surely, and it tricked me.

What I also felt about The Great Escape was that it was the marking point for all other Britpop; it was a challenge for marking your hometowns and singing in thick distinctive accents, and the first album to really give me a resounding sense of place. This, again, was ludicrous, and total to see in the bookends of Blur’s discography. Parklife was the depiction I was assuming for my favourite album instead. Parklife, built like a cheeky dissertation on British life, told from the view of gritty Englishmen (“he gets intimidated by the dirty pigeons… they love a bit of it”- I know people who say things like this) or just referencing it in a sombre, major/minor moment – “This Is a Low” sounds tragic, but it’s about our weather, and about getting it through the Shipping Forecast of all sources, like a nation that’s twice removed from the things it could see if it just went outside. This, surely, is the album that details what Blur could be: creative, reflective and London, all at once.

It was a long time until I really embraced Parklife or its prototype, Modern Life is Rubbish. These were more direct albums, in a way (even though they sprawled just as much), and the pop songs were more succinctly made than those on my precious Great Escape. “For Tomorrow” has only opened up to me in the past few months, but I see it now as their best song, one specifically made to be the album’s leading single for lack of a catchy moment to be found on its album. It doesn’t seem often that a songwriter will be commissioned to write a pop song and come up with something as exactly pop music as “For Tomorrow,” moving as it does from verse to chorus with sagacious clarity ill-afforded by any song Blur didn’t write as a single – finally, the song erupts into its outro of storytelling, a moment that crystallises these two sides of old age Blur; the documenter finally meets the pop icon and the pop icon wins out in the most blissful song they made all decade. They did it without all the tricks they learnt in 2003.

I don’t doubt that if I’d discovered Parklife or Modern Life when I was younger, when Blur were invisible to me, I would have failed to understand anything else in their catalogue. The album that followed them would have been a pale imitation of these microcosmic classics or a misfire before they lost it big time. But what resulted was a long-standing failure to recognise anything beyond their singles; Parklife had “This is a Low,” its title track and that filthy, carpet-dug “End of a Century.” What it has now is sixteen warped, hilarious vignettes, some better because they’re that first and a pop song second. “Bank Holiday” is, in its own special way, a staple of what Blur often were – a band dedicated to snapshots, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that they wrote this, an homage to punk rock in a two minute chord and beer chug-fest, and then went on to decorate their best-of with Julian Opie pop art. The artistic differences are there, maybe, but the implications are no different: Blur soaked up culture even as they were cashing in.

Modern Life seemed to snap the dull plodding bits and revere them as culture, and so “Advert,” which was again overshadowed by my obsession with the singles, is blown up with its sarcastic sample and its dinky punk-synth, its enthusiasm for musical crossover. And if anything, that’s what unites these two sides of Blur, one dangling off the side of The Great Escape and the other folding its arms and gossiping about sex on the garden patio. These two personas – “British” Blur and… well, “American” Blur, whatever you wanted to call it – were both weirdly uncomfortable, obsessed with fucking up patterns, and still so devoted to pop songs. Oh, “Crazy Beat,” how you tried. From 13 onwards, Blur seemed to go turning their old expressions into something more full-fledged; they didn’t forget geography, but they discovered different styles to channel their bizarre landscape through. 13 took its quieter moments sincerely, which was a singular sort of growth. But “Coffee & TV” and “No Distance Left To Run,” devastating in tone, were surrounded by a chaotic world I barely understood, that of a band discovering things more deranged than situational comedy. “Bugman” channeled noise rock (or just nosier rock), which I inadvertently discovered through it. “Optigan 1,” what the hell was an optigan 1?

Looking at this side of Blur, though, felt no different to me. It’s fair to say I didn’t grow up on Blur – instead, I followed them right onto 2012, even if it wasn’t as I should have. How The Great Escape became something I prized at nine and hold onto in my early adulthood, though, definitely speaks to that young existentialist joy of coming to music for melody, or for zany, or just for a song. Blur never made anything I could put on a timeline; I never saw “Charmless Man” as anything but the equal of the scratchy, basin percussive “Out of Time.” I never understood that these songs had chronology, and I still don’t – who could possibly say that “Coffee & TV,” or “Tender,” weren’t as much anthems as “For Tomorrow” or “There’s No Other Way”? Different kinds of anthems, maybe, but still Albarn’s and Coxon’s. Blur’s career has never been the riddle we’d like to make it out to be, and I don’t just say that as the idiot kid who listened to their most unremarkable album and understood all the wrong things. I say that as someone understanding more about Blur as I grow up than I ever could have then. I maintain that The Great Escape is my favourite record, and I may as well describe my reasons none lest give the world the Special Attachment rationale that music fans are wont to do. But there’s something in its description that’s telling: the in-between album, the one with “Country House” before they went weird. Has anyone ever really believed it to be a transition album when they listened to it? Blur always sounded like cheeky, romantic dolts, and they never stopped. Albarn said it was “messy.” Surely he was proud.

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