BLUR: THE GREAT ESCAPE (1995)
1) Stereotypes; 2) Country House; 3) Best Days; 4) Charmless Man; 5) Fade Away; 6) Top Man; 7) The Universal; 8) Mr. Robinson's Quango; 9) He Thought Of Cars; 10) It Could Be You; 11) Ernold Same; 12) Globe Alone; 13) Dan Abnormal; 14) Entertain Me; 15) Yuko & Hiro.
Sometimes Englishmen blame themselves a bit too much for being Englishmen, which might look downright odd to an outsider. In early 1967, Mick Jagger made Between The Buttons, an album largely influenced by the Kinks, delving into pure pop, music hall, and stereotypical portrayals of London society — of which, in less than two years, he deeply repented, and shifted his focus once again to faraway American influences, with good, but very different, results. No matter how many Stones fans keep demonstrating their love for that record, he still won't budge about performing its songs live. He really be ol' Delta bluesman, see.
Fast forward almost twenty years, and Blur hammers out The Great Escape, their most quintessentially «English-esque» album to-date. Unlike the Rolling Stones, Blur already had been tightly associated with the Britpop revival, so you'd probably expect the band to be deeply satisfied with the results. But no — Damon Albarn told everybody that it was «messy», and in less than two years, Blur would shift their focus to... faraway American influences. No matter how many Blur fans kept demonstrating their love for that record, Albarn still won't budge about performing its songs live (except maybe ʽThe Universalʼ). He really be hip-cool American indie rocker, see. Not to be stereotyped, no.
Of course, the band has some tough memories to shed about the record — released at the climax of the ridiculous «battle of the bands» between Oasis and Blur, which was really little more than a clever marketing strategy, designed to heat up interest in both groups, but some of the punches were real, and when The Great Escape lost in popularity and recognition to Oasis' Morning Glory (which does not mean that it was not popular on its own — it broke all the way to the top of the charts, and Blur still won the «singles battle» with ʽCountry Houseʼ), the band emerged from this somewhat depressed and feeling the need for a big change.
But really, we do not need to know all that history, do we? Twenty years on, The Great Escape, cleansed from its silly marketologist context, re-emerges simply as another fine collection of oh-so-British songs, engineered by a bunch of snub-nosed, delightfully evil, er, I mean, ironic kids with a great knack for powerful hooks, if not necessarily for masterful psychological insights. Let's face it, for all of Albarn's lyrical trickery, the words of songs like ʽCharmless Manʼ or ʽStereotypesʼ sound a bit silly — he is portraying caricatures, not real people — then again, that is the way of artistic licence, all the way from Charles Dickens to Ray Davies and then way beyond the British Isles, too. Anyway, we are not here for the words.
Instead, we are here to admire the sheer craftsmanship in a song like ʽStereotypesʼ, which, to my ears, contains the most kick-ass intro on a Blur record ever (and Blur are quite the masters of the kick-ass intro) — Coxon's opening two-chord bang is like a stone smashing through your living-room window, soon followed by a steady hail of similar ones as the rest of the band joins in, and Albarn's even-intoned "the suburbs they are dreaming they're a twinkle in her eye..." sounds even more arrogantly poised than his opening lines on ʽGirls & Boysʼ. The entire song, guitars, keyboards, vocals, drums even, is just one big friggin' sneer at people who believe that "there must be more to life than stereotypes" (or at people who do not believe that, whatever), and although there are, of course, musically far more heavy songs in the Blur catalog, few match the sheer vitriolity of ʽStereotypesʼ, which might explain, of course, why the band, in their stadium age, has preferred not to perform it any more.
A few tracks down the line, they almost repeat the same formula with ʽCharmless Manʼ. By now, Blur know their la-la-las and na-na-nas well enough to know how much they matter in tying a certain song to your brain, but I think that the biggest melodic accomplishment of the song is still its rather tricky chorus, with the necessity of switching to and back from falsetto in one-syllable turns, and the climactic buildup towards the resolution, which then cascades away into the na-na-nas. The message here is utterly insignificant in light of the form — this is really pop mastery of the highest order, far higher, in my opinion, than anything Oasis ever had to offer. And then there is that same cockiness, of course, and all those mockney diphthongs employed in the pronunciation of the word «Beaujolais» — irritating to some, perversely charming to others.
There's lots more stuff like that on The Great Escape, even if most of the other «character-driven» songs do not seem to quite reach the same level of sharpness. ʽCountry Houseʼ, the big hit single, is, of course, immaculate, with its slightly off-beat, drunken, carnivalesque attitude. ʽTop Manʼ has those deep gravelly backing vocals (as if a bunch of Tibetan monks suddenly opted for British citizenship), and the echoes and the whistles and the mock-paranoia. Somewhat worse, ʽDan Abnormalʼ, describing either a random victim of the TV virus or Damon Albarn himself (the title is an anagram), or Damon Albarn himself as a random victim, is written in the psycho-cool electric pop style of Revolver, and once again channels our attention through (somewhat less distinctive) na-na-nahs. Even more worsier, ʽMr. Robinson's Quangoʼ condemns big bosses in a rather mish-mashy, non-descript manner, with lots of punch but little in the way of actual hooks (with its rapid melodic changes, trumpets and jazzy keyboard parts, it seems more influenced by Zappa than the Kinks or the Beatles, but why should this band be influenced by Zappa in the first place?).
Thus we smoothly make the transition from admiration into the gray zone — truth of the matter is, The Great Escape, like most Blur albums, is just too damn long, and could easily have four or five songs hacked off for integrity's sake. I will not publish my ideal track list and/or sequencing here, but will simply note that the album, on the whole, gets more and more boring as it progresses, with a particularly sharp quality drop-off after ʽThe Universalʼ. Blame it on the 1990s and their drive for «CD-length» records, but it's not as if these records can shed off the extra weight all by themselves in the iCloud era — you will still have to do the trimming on your own.
Fortunately, there is still some stylistic diversity. ʽBest Daysʼ is a beautiful melancholic ballad, with a slightly late-night jazzy feel at first, later resolving into the album's most emotionally complex chorus (love, pity, and irony all meshed in one as Albarn warns that "other people wouldn't like to hear you if you said that these are the best days of our lives"). ʽThe Universalʼ, not really a personal favorite of mine, is still rightfully admired for its epic character — this is Blur at their most «progressive», with symphonic orchestration, glorious choirs, far-reaching lyrics, and a grand climax that, once it is over, gives the impression of having just resolved all the most important problems of the universe, so it is a little weird that there are eight more songs after that. It should have certainly replaced ʽYuko & Hiroʼ as the last track, or, at least, should have been placed right before ʽYuko & Hiroʼ — the latter, with its humble homebrewn pseudo-Japanese charm, would then have functioned as a complementary «piccolo finale» after the «gran finale», like a ʽHer Majestyʼ or something.
In any case, I can never really decide about which Blur album is better than others, because they all have their great moments and their share of filler, obligatory by some unwritten Blur law, so in the end, this is just another big thumbs up with certain reservations. People sometimes oppose Parklife as «the happy, upbeat Britpop album» to Great Escape as «the vitriolic, disconsolate Britpop album», but this is a gross simplification: Blur are not a «radiant» band by definition, and even their happiest songs are infused with gall, if you peer sharply enough. Okay, so I guess there are more songs here about loneliness than on Parklife, but that's all relative.
Perhaps the barbs are a little sharper and a little more poisonous here — this is merely a matter of nuance; anyway, I am not really interested in Albarn and Coxon so much for their skills at social comment as I am interested in their songwriting, and from that point of view, The Great Escape is every bit as consistent (and every bit as sometimes inconsistent) as Parklife in peppering you with cool, stimulating «Britpop hooks», whatever that might ever mean in musical terms. Only the album title is incomprehensible — where is the escape in question? Who is escaping, and whatever from? If we are to take the «loneliness album» judgement at face value, No Escape would have made more sense.