In 1997, Blur found themselves at a crossroads. Their last album, 1995’s glossy and overwrought The Great Escape, had gone multi-platinum, and lead single “Country House” had beaten Oasis’ “Roll With It” to the top of the charts in the most famous singles duel in England’s storied musical history. And yet things weren’t so rosy – Oasis’ What’s The Story (Morning Glory?) decisively outsold The Great Escape, both at home and in America, leading many to consider Blur’s finely-tuned Kinks-style pop passé compared to Oasis’ broader anthems. This view was heightened in lieu of the infamous video for “Country House,” a train wreck that killed a lot of the band’s public goodwill. Guitarist Graham Coxon, in particular, was becoming disillusioned with fame and battling for pop supremacy on two continents (especially in America, where Blur had maybe a tenth of Oasis’ fame). And then, so they say, somebody handed him a copy of Slanted and Enchanted …
Okay, that might be oversimplifying things, but the lo-fi rumblings of Pavement and Guided By Voices undoubtedly played a role in the next step of Blur’s career. Blur, the group’s nod to American indie music, serves both as a supposed repudiation of their Britpop leanings and a viable creative step forward. Gone was much of the elaborate orchestrations and clean, sharp production that had been the group’s calling card. In its stead was snarling guitars, weird noises, and a layer of fuzz that covered every song like sonic snow. The irony, then, was that this was still a Blur album, through and through – underneath the grime and dirt were great melodies, massive hooks, and songcraft equaled by few of their peers.
Of course, a typical Blur album doesn’t have “Song 2,” forever the group’s calling card in America, and one of their greatest songs. The greatness of “Song 2” is, if you can believe it, the same as the greatness of Seinfeld – it is, essentially, a song about nothing. The lyrics are meaningless, and the chorus (two roaring basslines with Coxon pounding away on one note over them – and, oh yeah, “woohoo!”) is as radio-ready as anything Nickelback ever wrote. It is a song entirely designed for public consumption, and that’s just the way Blur wanted it. For a group known for incisive, witty lyricism, it must’ve been a trip (and, sadly, quite revealing) to attain massive U.S. success with two minutes of “mindless” head-banging.
The rest of the album, thankfully, manages to attain greater levels of depth. Opener “Beetlebum” features harmonies worthy of the Fab Four backing arresting, pulsating electric noise. “On Your Own” combines alien bleeps and bloops, clanging chords, and one of Damon Albarn’s best choruses in one joyous package. “You’re So Great,” a solo Coxon effort, matches a beautiful paean to alcoholism with scratchy acoustics that sound like a manhandled vinyl recording. And “I’m Just A Killer For Your Love” actually nods towards rap-rock, with a heavy, menacing beat underpinning scratch-like noises and a blanket of guitars.
But the album’s real hidden gem, and its emotional center, is “Look Inside America,” a remarkable summation of Blur‘s “turn things upside down” style. Instead of Albarn’s usual satiric jabs at modern culture, we get a droll tale of life on the road as a second-tier band (“got to play on a second-rate chat show…got an ad on KROQ, and there’s an in-store tonight“), with notorious America-baiter Albarn actually stating that, gasp, America just might be cool after all! Then, all of a sudden, we get a marvelous little Blur-style character sketch (“stepping off in twenty, so the driver says/ I should sleep tonight, but I think I’ll watch videos instead“) that paints a picture as well as, say, “Tracy Jacks” or “Charmless Man” ever did. And behind it all is swooping strings and pitch-perfect “ooh”s, everything you’d expect from the group that made Parklife. It’s a song only Blur could’ve made, and a song Blur never would’ve made – and an undisputed highlight.
Blur’s next album, 13, would get even messier, if that was possible. With the help of electronica producer William Orbit and the dark romantically-crushed mindset of Albarn, 13 was a singularly compelling mess, meandering, loud, and amazingly difficult to sit through (there are still great melodies, but they’re even harder to find). And it never would’ve happened without Blur, an album that showed that Britain’s masters of shiny pop could get as down and dirty as Sonic Youth ever did, without losing sense of who they were and what made them great. Blur’s made more popular albums, and they’ve made more consistent albums, but they never made a better album.