BLUR: BLUR (1997)
1) Beetlebum; 2) Song 2; 3) Country Sad Ballad Man; 4) M.O.R.; 5) On Your Own; 6) Theme From Retro; 7) You're So Great; 8) Death Of A Party; 9) Chinese Bombs; 10) I'm Just A Killer For Your Love; 11) Look Inside America; 12) Strange News From Another Star; 13) Movin' On; 14) Essex Dogs.
An album called Blur, released (seemingly) by a band named Blur and featuring (obviously) an authentic «blur» on the front sleeve, could be easily perceived as a debut — and, indeed, for Coxon and Albarn alike this was a career reboot. Having lost the popularity battle to Oasis, they cooled down towards «Britpop», and instead, decided to pursue what seemed like a more adventurous road at the time, taking their new cues from contemporary American indie / lo-fi / avantgarde rock scene, with Sonic Youth and particularly Pavement usually namechecked as Coxon's primary influences at the time.
Since that whole scene has become a bit more jaded with the passing of time, and, I'd guess, far more praised by conservative critics than listened to by current audiences, this fact alone can cause plenty of skepticism. I mean, substituting Ray Davies for Stephen Malkmus as your chief musical guru? Not necessarily the wisest of choices and all. However, Blur do have two advantages on their hands. First, they are a pop band, and, regardless of whoever they choose to be their guiding light, be it Mantovani or Throbbing Gristle, they have no intention to stop being a pop band. Second, they are a good pop band — with a knack for catchy and meaningful pop melodies, so, regardless of what sort of tone, effect, or feedback they soak them in, the album is not going to be «over-the-top» experimental. (Check: Nothing against boldness, experimentation, and innovation — unless they are exclusively for boldness' and experimentation's own sake, which is a defect I have frequently associated with Pavement).
Anyway, few things in the Blur catalog are as awesomely cool as the beginning of ʽBeetlebumʼ, where Graham's guitar plays the part of a weird car engine, stalling at first, then revving up at a steady tempo. But whoever that «CHUNK-chook-chook-chook-CHUNK-chook-chook-chook» pattern was pilfered from, Albarn's vocal parts are pure Lennon — in one of his lazy-sleepy, yet wittily perceptive moods. The lyrics refer to sex, drugs, and not all that much rock'n'roll, as the arrangement eventually becomes more and more psychedelic and the song finally sort of explodes in a sonic kaleidoscope. The funny thing is, all of this is not as far removed from the values of Parklife and Great Escape as the album's descriptions so often make it seem — there is still something very much «British» about it all, not just Damon's vocals.
The story of ʽSong 2ʼ is well known: a brief musical joke that intended to parody the «grunge / alt-rock craze» of the 1990s, but was lost on most listeners, who embraced it seriously and turned it into Blur's signature song — «that ʽwoo-hoo!ʼ tune». In defense of the listeners', I am also always tempted to embrace it seriously, because it is one of the few examples of «happy grunge» that I know of. I mean, moshing along to ʽSmells Like Teen Spiritʼ is sort of a downer, when you really get down to it — being blown about the room as Albarn screams "WHEN I FEEL HEAVY METAL!..." is a completely different sensation. It's as if they were Ramonifying the genre, making this heavy music as friendly as possible, and the feeling is contagious.
It is only after this opening one-two punch that Blur truly begins to intrude into some «weird» territory: ʽCountry Sad Ballad Manʼ is a fairly straightforward blues-pop tune in essence, but its production is lo-fi (making Albarn sound like a wretched bum from outer space) and its lead guitar parts are crooked and twisted, as Coxon tries to free himself from conventional chord sequences and wants to become somebody like Marc Ribot, playing minimalistic dissonant bursts of notes that would seem normal for a wretched bum from outer space. It's not the epitome of catchiness, but it makes sense — an impressionistic musical portrait of an individual battered about by life one too many times.
From there on, they may go in any direction as long as there is something crooked and twisted about the chosen path. Some of the tracks rock out loud (ʽM.O.R.ʼ, ʽChinese Bombsʼ, ʽMovin' Onʼ), some reach out for the stars in a new coming of Syd Barrett (ʽTheme From Retroʼ, ʽStrange News From Another Starʼ), some continue the Lennon vibe (ʽYou're So Greatʼ sounds every bit like one of those heavily bootlegged «home tapes» that feature John strumming his guitar and trying out some freshly generated, raw-as-heck melody), some invoke a woozy drugged-out party spirit (ʽOn Your Ownʼ — hilariously, the drugged-out party is waved goodbye three tracks down the line, with ʽDeath Of A Partyʼ), some put on dark glasses, black leather, and descend into a smelly basement somewhere close to St. Marks' Place, in order to be tougher-than-tough and cooler-than-cool (ʽI'm Just A Killer For Your Loveʼ — doesn't that title alone make you shake in your boots?). There are no great melodic breakthroughs here, but on the whole, this is a classy way to refresh and reload the old Blur vibe.
The biggest uncertainty lies with the final track, ʽEssex Dogsʼ, an eight-minute piece of genuine avantgarde — ostensibly this record's ʽRevolution No. 9ʼ (or, rather, a condensed, slightly more melodic, version of Metal Machine Music), prudently tacked on to the end so that even if you dismiss it as a pretentious piece of unlistenable shit, you are still left with a perfectly legit, uninterrupted 48-minute album. Actually, I like some of the stuff that Coxon does with his guitar, particularly that opening riff which once again sounds like a vehicle winding up and down, stubbornly refusing to start up properly — but on the whole, eight minutes of this stuff does look like overkill, especially coming from a band that had never properly specialized in the legacy of Lou Reed and John Cale. On the other hand, I guess that if something like ʽSong 2ʼ makes you a big star, you gotta have a nifty antidote like ʽEssex Dogsʼ on hand — play it for thirty minutes uninterrupted at your stadium shows and nobody is going to confuse you with the Stone Temple Pilots any more. It's a dog-eat-dog world, you gotta be prepared for anything.
Honestly, I think this is a pretty damn good album poised for greatness, and that it still holds up very well after all those years — in fact, it might even hold up better than some of its influences, because, just like the Beatles, Blur have the capacity of «taming» those influences and adapting them to accessible purposes without compromising them. On Parklife and Great Escape, they sang catchy songs about the underbelly of society; on Blur, they make us sense that underbelly through the «ugly» musical moves, dissonance, and well-orchestrated chaos rather than the lyrics (which are often transformed into Joycian stream-of-consciousness rants) or the singing (which is often intentionally «downgraded» with lo-fi production). The shift was a gamble that could have very well failed, but it did not fail, and still deserves its strong thumbs up.