BLUR: 13 (1999)
1) Tender; 2) Bugman; 3) Coffee & TV; 4) Swamp Song; 4) B.L.U.R.E.M.I.; 5) Battle; 6) Mellow Song; 7) Trailerpark; 8) Caramel; 9) Trimm Trabb; 10) No Distance Left To Run; 11) Optigan 1.
It feels strange to me that the band did not simply disintegrate into little pieces after recording 13, and that, apparently, truly serious bickering between Albarn and Coxon did not begin until the beginning of the sessions for their next record — because in certain important ways, 13 has a very much Abbey Road-like aura to it. It is undeniably a Blur album by signature, but a weird, unsettling, aurally distant Blur album, one that seems to dictate its own terms and generate its own warped universe around it. It hasn't got any «normal» pop songs, or, more accurately, all of its «normal» pop songs are uniformly «de-normalized», but this time, they do not take their cues from Pavement or Sonic Youth. They take them from any instinctive wave that has subconsciously rattled their brain — in the process, creating their strange psychedelic masterpiece.
Actually, just for the pleasure of contradicting myself, I think that the beginning of ʽTenderʼ owes a little something to Floyd's ʽWish You Were Hereʼ — the same croaky, creaky, hideously lo-fi guitar sound announcing the beginning of the song «from the back entrance», before the band kicks in properly, with all the right recording equipment. But then the song itself, of course, is more like Blur's ʽHey Judeʼ... or is it? ʽHey Judeʼ is an anthem of consolation and encouragement; ʽTenderʼ is more like a layer-by-layer buildup of positive energy that desperately seeks to be spent but finds no relief. "Come on, come on, come on, get through it... I'm waiting for that feeling, waiting for that feeling to come... Oh my baby, oh my baby, oh why, oh my..." — now that I am looking at those lyrics, I think I am beginning to know what the song is about (hint: medical advice may be sought in situations like these).
Subsequently, ʽTenderʼ is (a) tender, (b) powerful, (c) catchy, (d) hilarious, (e) unusually complex for a Blur pop song, with no less than four distinct vocal melodies, on top of which we also have gospel-styled vocal harmonies (another first for the band). It is a song without any obvious genre characteristics, and its length, stately tempo, and penchant for seductive pomposity (particularly when Damon, in full preacher mode, grandly intones "love's the greatest thing that we have") suggest that on 13, Blur are finally positioning themselves as «rock royalty», scaling epic heights and dwarving competition and listeners alike.
But nothing could be farther from the truth, as ʽTenderʼ turns out to be the most — in fact, the only — «normal» tune on the album. Perhaps it was essentially an Albarn creation or something, because with ʽBugmanʼ, Coxon and his guitar take over and rarely let go again. Industrial guitar tones, colorful feedback, dissonant notes, polyphonic overdubs — 13 is a «weird guitar lover»'s paradise, and one of the best examples of what could be creatively done with the instrument at the turn of the century, especially when you have a brain every bit as creative as, say, Adrian Belew's, but have not been blessed with equal technical chops.
Not that Graham isn't a tender-hearted pop lover himself, deep inside his soul — ʽCoffee & TVʼ, which is personally his to the point of getting a solo vocal spot, has one of Blur's simplest, poppiest melodies and an unbeatable falsetto hook in the chorus (or, rather, the hook comes from the clever «falsetto explosion» of the tension accumulated in the several previous bars). The humbly murmured melody agrees well with his declaration of introversion ("Sociability is hard enough for me / Take me away from this big bad world and agree to marry me" — as far as I know, nobody has properly agreed so far), but then he still has to add a set of agonizing, vibrato-rattled, distorted guitar solos with elements of atonality to this perfectly nice and poppy melody, just to remind us that nothing is, or should be, as simple as it looks.
ʽTenderʼ and ʽCoffee & TVʼ are the two songs that stick in your mind easiest of all, due to their pop hooks, but liking them is not equal to liking 13 as an album. To do that, one has to develop a feel for material like ʽBattleʼ and ʽCaramelʼ — long, meandering, spaced out vamps that are anything but boring: Coxon and Albarn have never been masters of the drawn-out crescendo (like all them «post-rock» heros) — instead of that, they just wait for one idea to exhaust itself and then freshen things up with additional electronic effects, countermelodies, guitar freakouts, tempo changes, whatever comes into their whacky heads. On ʽCaramelʼ in particular, you get to hear echoes of not only Pink Floyd, but also Can and other «Krautrock» pioneers — but still there's a pop heart beating somewhere very deep inside, a melancholic, nearly-dying pop heart this time, as the vibrating guitar riff sings "caramel, caramel" and Albarn is brooding on the implicit issue of yet another breakup. Yes, better to brood than to eat your vitamins if it results in mindblowing music like this — Syd Barrett would be proud of his disciples.
As usual, the album is a little longer than it probably ought to be, and sometimes prompts confusing flashbacks — for instance, the basic melody of ʽ1992ʼ rides the same two-chord pattern as ʽSingʼ from their debut album, and could be said to represent a technical update of ʽSingʼ for the upcoming millennium; but sound-wise, it is much more advanced than ʽSingʼ anyway, so the real reason to complain is that it might be one lengthy psychedelic adventure too many for an album that also has ʽBattleʼ, ʽCaramelʼ, and ʽTrimm Trabbʼ on it. But 13 also has shorter, more energetic, yet equally bizarre highlights for you: ʽTrailerparkʼ, for instance, an exercise in moody trip-hop that creates a vaguely menacing nocturnal atmosphere with its «moonlight keyboards», but the lyrics go "I'm a country boy, I got no soul, I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones" — uh? come again? Unless Albarn's girl's name happens to be Lisa Fischer, we are going to have to assume a metaphoric interpretation for this catchy passage. Naturally, the entire album is in sort of a confused-depressed mode of existence, but somehow this little jab at the Stones in the context of those phantasmagorical keyboards feels particularly perplexing.
One major disappointment of mine has not managed to dissipate over the years: I have never liked ʽNo Distance Left To Runʼ and I do not feel any big change coming on here. It features one more brief return to «normal» mode at the end of the album, but it is really a rather clumsy and melodically uninteresting alt-rock ballad that seems to sacrifice «artistry» in favor of puffed-up «honesty» — Damon Albarn with his heart bleeding on his sleeve. Conceptually, it might work — after a series of brutal nightmares, the protagonist wakes up and summarizes his feelings in a final decisive aria — but on its own, the song is not at all representative of Blur's compositional genius, and broken hearts, might I add, come a dozen a dollar this time of the season: cynical as it might sound, nobody is interested in Albarn's breakups, we are only interested in how that affects his musical output. ʽCaramelʼ and ʽTrailerparkʼ — now we're talking here. ʽNo Distance Left To Runʼ — I'd rather have Beth Gibbons or Elliott Smith enlightening me on the issue of broken hearts, depression, and disillusionment, and prefer the album end on a more impressionistic note. ʽCaramelʼ as the last track would have been great, for instance.
Still, this is Blur, and Blur are never perfect, end of story. But 13 is as close as they have ever come to overriding all clichés and harnessing, rather than worshipping, all their influences. If Leisure subscribed to the adjoining cults of «Madchester» and «shoegaze», and the next three albums were all adepts of the Holy Church of Britpop, and Blur cowered before the Great and Terrible American Indie scene, then 13 simply refuses to follow any organized religion. It goes deep, gets mad, stays dark, and probably should not be played under the influence of chemical substances to avoid a really nasty trip. All in all, yet another winner, and a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to a slightly flawed, but altogether tremendously consistent career (and let us pretend, for just a brief moment, that Think Tank never existed) — a hearty thumbs up here.