England, England, wherefore art thou, England? Deny thy prizes and refuse thy lame; or if thou wilt not, be but scorned my love, and I’ll no longer be an Anglophile! This year I have been disappointed with the lack of recognition given to particularly amazing people in the British arts. For one, David Mitchell, who has now been snubbed for the Booker Prize twice, this time for his latest novel, Black Swan Green, yet he also deserved it for his previous book, Cloud Atlas. Another travesty occurred with the omission of Graham Coxon’s Love Travels at Illegal Speeds from the shortlist for this year’s Mercury Prize, curse or no curse to the actual winner. (Will we hear from the Arctic Monkeys again?) After seven long months of waiting, the US gets a stateside release for Coxon’s sixth album, a genius blend of punk, guitar rock and pure British charm. With this album, the second to be produced by Stephen Street, Coxon captures all of what is brash and brassy throughout the history of British pop, and does it all with panache.
The last time I wrote about Graham Coxon, I imagined a telephone conversation between producer Street and Damon Albarn in which Albarn muses over asking Coxon to rejoin Blur. Not that I’m taking credit, but, of course, Albarn did repeatedly and publicly ask Coxon to rejoin, to no avail. Instead, Coxon once again teamed up with Street to create Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, possibly the best example of British rock since Parklife. (In fact, not only does Street revive his role, but the horn players from Parklife also make a return appearance!) Throughout the album, Coxon is like the famous Romeo, showing one side to Juliet, the love of his life, and quite another to her family of Capulets. Speeds is practically an even split between his soft inner core, helpless and unprotected, and a more aggressive punk style, somewhat his outer shield to deal with the Tybalts of the world.
The album kicks off with the incredibly apt title, “Standing On My Own Again,” a cockney accented throwback to the birth of punk that recalls the Buzzcocks at their creative peak. The infectious “I Can’t Look at Your Skin” is more of the same, yet with even more of a punk edge. Is this the same shy guitarist that we knew and loved from Blur? While he may not be able to look at her skin, he’s become much more comfortable in his own, whether from any of the major changes in his life (getting clean, leaving Blur, spending time with family, riding motorcycles, etc.) or merely an acceptance of his gift. From the very outset, Coxon reminds us that even though his singing voice has steadily improved as well as his songwriting, he is primarily a guitarist and hasn’t let those skills fade. Hell, even Jonny Greenwood has praised Coxon’s guitar playing.
“Don’t Let Your Man Know” finds Coxon revealing a new side, a sneaky Lothario cadding about with other men’s women. That song and “Just a State of Mind” with its Bacharach-themed horns set Coxon on a playing field with the great Ray Davies. There’s a sense of playful abandon and wistfulness at the same time, all while remaining staunchly British. “You & I” is the second single from Speeds, and the second to hit the top 40, although just barely. It is Coxon’s vocal cadence in the verses that balance with the catchy chorus that make this song so incredibly memorable, and one of his best songs since “Coffee & TV.” Maybe he just needs to stick to songs with ampersands. The punk fury returns with “Gimme Some Love,” again recalling the Buzzcocks considering the strange juxtaposition of aggressive and biting guitars with themes of love and sex (a la “Ever Fallen in Love” or “Orgasm Addict”). “I Don’t Wanna Go Out” is somewhat the introverted version of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” albeit with more metal-tinged guitars. While “Don’t Believe Anything I Say” may not feature Coxon’s best vocal performance (in fact, the shifting notes within the sung word ‘believe’ can set your teeth on edge), it is one of his more honest performances, and a look within his own psyche. One would get the sense in listening to the song that the image of Terry and Julie on Waterloo Bridge would have him in tears rather than paradise, longing for his lost Juliet.
“Flights to the Sea,” featuring the lovely sound of Coxon’s acoustic guitar, sounds tailor-made for a sequel to Garden State, a bit Nick Drake-ish, and slightly Simon & Garfunkel. As opposed to “Don’t Let Your Man Know,” “What’s He Got?” finds Coxon on the losing end of a shattered relationship, as he looks on in jealousy at his ex and her new beau. His mention of Britannia Junction could end up to be the antithesis to Waterloo Bridge, a place not to rejoice in love, but to revile it. “You Always Let Me Down” and “See a Better Day” provide the last look at the two sides of Coxon, the former showing the rebellious side of his nature, and the latter his most earnest plea for love since “You’re So Great.”
It’s a downright shame that Coxon has not been given more accolades. His role in Blur is now seen as greater than most imagined thanks to the completely bereft sounds of Think Tank. The brilliance of 13 is just as much, if not more, owed to Coxon than to Damon Albarn. Albarn might have made a bigger name for himself in hiding behind a cartoon alter-ego, but Graham Coxon will, like Romeo vs. Albarn’s Paris, gain infinite infamy. Love Travels at Illegal Speeds not only proves that Coxon isn’t just a lo-fi experimenter with one fluke success under his belt, it proves that he belongs in the pantheon of great British acts, Mercury Prize or no.