Review: Blur – 13 (Special Edition)
Published on July 15th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Blur’s sudden about-turn into noisy psych-pop on Blur yielded spectacular results but it did not sit well with everyone. 1999’s William Orbit-produced 13 would confuse and alienate even more, with one major publication dismissing it as “in one ear and out the other” fare. Rocksucker thought it sounded fantastic then, and it still sounds fantastic now.
This writer will confess to often skipping opening track “Tender” on many a contemporaneous listen to the album, presumably owing at least in part to its ubiquity as lead single. With the benefit of distance it’s captivating how its graceful majesty staves off the dark and strange universe that lies beyond it, and as a friend once noted Damon Albarn does indeed sound as if he’s getting more and more depressed as the song goes on.
Any teeny-bopper fans to have survived Blur will have been frightened off once and for all by the astonishing “Bugman”; like “Song 2” reimagined as a sinister superhero soundtrack, it wrests control of your imagination with na na na oh oh!s so commanding you’d fight for them, and a big, whirring electronic swarm heralds quite the maelstrom. Dave Rowntree’s clattering drumbeat is superb throughout, and that “space is the place” outro does indeed feel as if it has taken flight off into the great blue yonder.
“Coffee & TV” is pure Graham Coxon genius. See what happens when it gets played in a bar or some such: people go about their business as if those truly bizarre bursts of guitar noise, alternating of course with deliciously breezy “oooh, we can start over again”s, were the most normal thing in the world. It’s a subversive triumph, as well as Coxon’s as a musician; it’s just so weird when you study it closely, but it sounds so right that no-one bats an eyelid.
On the face of it “Coffee & TV” is one of Blur’s simpler pop moments – it most certainly is within the context of its immediate environment – but there’s so much more to it that amounts to genius, and what an iconic video too!
“Take me away from this big, bad world / And agree to marry me” requests the Albarn-handled chorus so sweetly, while the gentle organ outro sounds as if it really had been designed to soundtrack a milk carton ascending to heaven. It’s a classic all over and sets the stage consummately for “Swamp Song”, in which wonky power chords play snakes and ladders while Damon wails things like “give me space brain”; it’s utterly barmy, seemingly quoting Fozzy Bear in that whirring chorus-of-sorts and going on to incorporate a really rather manic scream of “stick it in my veins!” By now Blur had shunned commercial-mindedness almost entirely, and they were all the more fascinating for it.
The desolate “1992”, the origins of which date back to that provided in the title, is so arresting of chord progression that you could strip all but the rhythm guitar out of this and it would still sound beautiful. As it is, Coxon’s huge wailing guitar heralds a gradual build into tempestuous waters of shimmering feedback and echo-chamber isolation, like a band playing alone in the centre of the Earth, if not somewhere else altogether, perhaps many, many lightyears away. “What do you owe me? / The price of your piece of mind / You’d love my bed / You took it all instead” appears to refer explicitly to the dissolution of Albarn’s relationship with Justine Frischmann, which going by the pervading tone of 13 must have been a very painful one. “In one ear and out the other” my jacksie, this is stunning stuff.
The music industry lampooning “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” was an instant favourite for Rocksucker, and that it conjures barnyard imagery for Rocksucker means it must have activated some childhood association or other. It’s absolutely riotous with its silly raised-pitch vocal, fit to rival “Song 2” for thrashy, borderline nonsensical fun, and it ends with a soft, twinkly keyboard bit that leads into “Battle” as if it were some enchanted forest from The Legend of Zelda.
As you’re wandering through this forest, a monster emerges from the darkness; this monster is “Battle”, and although it’s forlorn it means you no harm, even moving to reassure you with an oddly soothing combination of vocal refrain and synth pad over the clattering drum loop and Alex James’s tremendous grinding bass. You can see why some might have started losing interest here, misconstruing this as noodling, but again it’s to their loss. Blur had been a great pop band and now they had become arty explorers, their jettisoning of pop conciseness conducive to the disorienting ‘lost at sea’ feel of much of the album.
The monster retreats with Coxon guitar screeching into the wilderness, and we come to a clearing marked “Mellow Song” where a despondent, drugged-up Albarn serenades the moon before becoming obscured by pounding timpani and fuzzy guitar, which in turn flowers into a mesmerisingly ornate jam the likes of which only a truly great band could pull off. It’s amazingly inventive pop music.
“Trailer Park” – and what a mournful trailer park it is – strikes up a brooding not-quite-blues swagger as Albarn laments “I lost my girl to The Rolling Stones”, playing host to occasional interjections of magical glowing keys wrapped in gnarled Coxon guitar. It’s no stand-out but it tides 13 over effectively enough until its darkest moment (joint with “1992”) arrives: “Caramel” starts out so starkly crestfallen and proceeds to plough its own little underground hovel, nest in it, fritter away and then re-emerge with a funky, distorted interlude that leads straight into one of Blur’s very finest tracks…
“Trimm Trabb” sounds positively alien, built as “Swamp Song” is around an insanely catchy power chord motif, but this one’s more quietly contemplative. The heroin-induced detachment of lines like “All those losers on the piss again / I dose, dose away” supplements the unearthly air of indescribableness…because, you know, “that’s just the way it is”. After a second round of chorus and a nervy breakdown section, “Trimm Trabb” comes storming back in on a mystical surfboard of blaring distortion, a thrilling dynamic that Coxon made a right hash of during the 2009 Hyde Park attended by Rocksucker by forgetting to activate his distortion pedal on time. What an unbelievably great performance that was; roll on August 12th, we say.
The appropriately late-in-the-running order “No Distance Left to Run” is heartbreakingly weary and defeated – “It’s over, you don’t need to tell me / I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep” is a sucker punch and a half, as is “I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life” – while Coxon’s bluesy, gently chiming guitar is so striking coming as it does in the wake of so much carnage. The sepia-tinted fairground theme of “Optigan 1” brings 13 to a close, and then it’s on to the extras.
“French Song” begins with that “Rocks”-by-Primal-Scream beat before turning into an exhibition for Coxon’s thrillingly wibbly guitar, all the while maintaining a breeziness that could conceivably make it the theme tune for an ace TV show if it hasn’t been used already. The eight-minute running time is perhaps not necessary but it’s easy to love and pleasingly at odds with the prevailing mood of 13, even reminding of the Modern Life is Rubbish instrumentals by speeding up into a frenzy and ending in a flurry of shivering feedback.
“All We Want” is gorgeous, elegant Blur-pop that could with its guitar swipes and fuzzy blasts have fit very nicely indeed onto either Blur or The Great Escape, and with its swoonsome chorus and sparkling Coxon jangle could even have been a single. It’s one of their best B-sides if not the best, and its luxuriousness is in stark contrast to the harrowed wilderness of 13. “Mellow Jam” is just as it says on tin, in more ways than one in fact since it regurgitates the “we’ll see” refrain from “Mellow Song”, and then we are treated to each band member’s remix of “Bugman”.
Albarn’s “X-Offender” remix is credited to ‘Damon/Control Freak’ – make of that what you will – and its laid-back nocturnal strut points towards Gorillaz album Demon Days. Rowntree’s “Coyote” deploys shuffly beat and wibbly synth, smartly editing a pause into the phrase “I stay away from the……bugs”. A bleepy, valve-releasing freak-out, it really is quite berserk.
Coxon’s “Metal Hip Slop” does indeed sound like a cross between metal and sloppy hip hop, making good use of the batshit-crazy outbreak of wailing lead guitar he himself presumably laid down on the original, while James’s “Trade Stylee” issues a pounding, hi-hat-injected club beat with blaring snaps of electronic punctuation, using the “space is the place” and “na na na na na oh OH!” refrains at the same time to great effect.
“So You” is a nice, slow stomp with an oddly subdued feel, unfinished-sounding but pleasing nonetheless, its creepy melodica line pointing forwards to the first Gorillaz album in a couple of years’ time. We then have the twinkly ambience and grumbling distorted bass of Alex James’s genuine offering to Mars “Beagle 2”, and then a remix of “Tender”, courtesy of Japanese genius Cornelius, that starts with Mogwai-esque guitar harmonics (guitarmonics?) and a guitar part on it like the verse from “Demons” by Super Furry Animals, eventually throwing in a breakbeat to shred the twinkly splendour. We couldn’t tell you why it comes between “Beagle 2” and “Far Out (Beagle 2 Version)” in the chosen running order, but it works well leading into the bouncily strummed grunge-pop makeover of James’s Parklife number nevertheless.
The jerky, funky, Talking Heads-y “Music is My Radar” was pretty cool as a single to coincide with the Blur Best Of released in 2000, and its B-side “Black Book” starts on a slow, shuffly beat like “Best Days” and plays out as a low-key, thoroughly decent eight-minute. Stephen Malkmus would the following year release a different song of the same name, fact fans.
Crassly simplistic and missing the point as it may be to rank Blur albums in such a manner, but for us 13 – a fascinating and frequently astonishing piece of work that’s as transporting as it is troubled – ranks alongside The Great Escape and just below Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife. Just a matter of opinion, like, but they’re all fabulous records.
Furthermore, Rocksucker can clearly recall reading a glowing review of the album written by former England left-back Graeme Le Saux, and though Google may not be forthcoming we’re pretty sure we didn’t imagine that.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
The special edition of 13 will be released on 30th July through EMI. For more information, please visit blur.co.uk/blur21/