BLUR: LEISURE (1991)
1) She's So High; 2) Bang; 3) Slow Down; 4) Repetition; 5) Bad Day; 6) Sing; 7) There's No Other Way; 8) Fool; 9) Come Together; 10) High Cool; 11) Birthday; 12) Wear Me Down.
Blur's debut seems to have been firmly written down in history as one of those «early disaster» type records — like David Bowie's self-titled debut, or Genesis' From Genesis To Revelation: collections of tentative writings that «show promise», but are so utterly derivative in comparison with later, more self-assured and individualistic creations, that nobody except the most forgiving or the most analytical fans should really bother.
Indeed, Leisure is quite derivative, no objections here. The young London band «Seymour», formed in the late 1980s, naturally admired the latest in hip developments — primarily the «Madchester» scene and the «shoegazing» movement, anything that could combine intelligence, psychedelia, and dancing (replete with funky syncopation if possible) in the same package. As of 1991, they had no serious inclination to become special flag-bearers for their home country — in fact, Leisure sounds as if all they wanted to do was to become the latest incarnation of The Stone Roses, in slightly poppier and more immediately accessible clothing. With a small pinch of My Bloody Valentine added, if possible, for extra-artsy flavor. Something like that.
Given such a setting, it is no wonder that Damon Albarn himself had more or less disowned Leisure, and most fans and critics alike consider Modern Life Is Rubbish to have been the «proper» debut for Blur. The two singles, ʽShe's So Highʼ and ʽThere's No Other Wayʼ, are often excused from this anathema, since they were recorded earlier than the album, while the album sessions were fussy, hurried, and left no time for Albarn to properly care about the lyrics. But on a grand scale, there is nothing stylistically special about these songs that separates them from the overall mood of the LP — ʽShe's So Highʼ is the accurate son of Shoegaze, ʽThere's No Other Wayʼ is the pretty daughter of Madchester, and then there's all the rest.
Nevertheless, I have always been a moderate fan of Leisure, because even with all of its «second hand» nature (and who, really, is to say that all of the ensuing «Brit-pop» was not second hand, when you have all that lengthy line of predecessors, from the Kinks to the Jam, stretched over the previous three decades?), even with all of that, the album is already doing a good job at showcasing Blur's greatest skill: pop hooks. Call me crazy, but in terms of instant memorability, I actually count more hooklines on Leisure than on The Stone Roses — that doesn't necessarily make it the greater album, but I sure wouldn't mind if Ian Brown and his lads had included at least a couple of short, tight, snappy, catchy tunes like ʽBangʼ or ʽHigh Coolʼ on that record.
Not only that, but the individual trademarks of Blur's two most prominent members are also well on display: Damon Albarn's snubby-sounding, velar-inclined Luhnduhn style vocal delivery, and guitarist Graham Coxon's penchant for playing it rough and dirty, but very precise and distinct at the same time, with a terrific balance between «tone» and «melody» that the generic alt-rocker would always topple in favor of «tone». A great example is the funk-pop riff that opens and controls the majority of ʽThere's No Other Wayʼ — just the right amount of crackly distortion to add some «masculinity», but playful and colorful on the whole. Or that song that nobody ever talks about, ʽRepetitionʼ (maybe because the song title instantaneously puts everybody off) — there's some fantastic guitar work there, even if it is, indeed, repetitive, but that wailing, strained riff that goes from a viciously sustained note to a series of desperately shortened ones, is a perfect companion for Albarn's "all things remain the same, so why try again? try, try, try again" chorus (or vice versa, if the melody was written before the lyrics).
Already ʽShe's So Highʼ shows that Blur are perfectly natural when it comes to keeping it simple and stupid — a couple distorted guitar overdubs, an echo effect on double-tracked vocals singing "she's so high, she's so high, I want to crawl all over her", and suddenly you get yourself a bona fide contemporary psychedelic classic. You don't even need that mid-section break with Beatlesy backward solos and cloud-riding harmonies — that chorus alone is worth the ride. It is a little unusual to hear Albarn so utterly «spaced out», as if he were under chemical influences when recording his part, but that is the attitude that the song needs. He's just being spaced out by this girl, you see. She's so high, he wants to crawl all over her. Let's hope it doesn't work in real life.
There is filler, sure enough. ʽSlow Downʼ, for instance, has some really boring, uninspired grunge guitar work, a song that must have taken three minutes to write. The same goes for ʽFoolʼ and ʽCome Togetherʼ which sound like raw demos for My Bloody Valentine's Loveless without any of the atmospheric arrangement components that made that record so special. But for a 50-minute record, three or four filler tunes are nothing to be afraid of. It would have been worse if the longest track on the album were also filler — however, ʽSingʼ is anything but; instead, it is a beautifully morose, hypnotic mantra, one of the most expressive songs based on a one-note pattern ever written, like a dirge for one's mind, frozen numb and incapable of activity. Maybe it's their impression of the sort of music that must be playing on constant repeat in the cerebrum of comatose patients — anyway, it's better than most shoegaze I have heard.
By the time the album winds down with ʽWear Me Downʼ, another track whose title is perfectly suited to its leaden guitar riff and «stone tired» vocals, Leisure has done a fine job introducing Blur as a band that, while not being terribly original (yet), feels perfectly at home with currently cutting-edge pop styles — their Please Please Me, if you wish, a record that nobody has any reason to be ashamed of, fully deserving an assured thumbs up. As far as I'm concerned, easily the worst thing about it is the front sleeve. If I were a paid musical critic and had to endure looking at that tacky bathing cap, I'd probably feel forced to shoot it down, too.