Blur... Indeed it is
Review: Blur – Blur (Special Edition)
Published on July 14th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
…on which Blur well and truly hit the ejector seat button of the exploding clown car that Britpop had become. In a year – 1997 to be precise – that saw Radiohead, Super Furry Animals and Supergrass take reactionary turns for the darker on OK Computer, Radiator and In It for the Money respectively (a mention also for Pulp’s This is Hardcore of the following year), Blur’s musical change of facial expression was at the time the most scrutinised and arguably the most self-conscious. Whatever the motivation – the circus that followed them, Graham Coxon’s Pavement obsession, whatever – the results are staggering.
“Beetlebum” is one of the several Blur songs that everyone should know and love; heck, even Liam Gallagher professed a liking for it. Its sleazy grunge guitars, seedy lyrics and syrupy Damon Albarn vocal climax into a psychedelic wig-out over which ghostly whirring noises conjure quite the tempest, making it abundantly clear from the start that this change of tack is not about to end up with egg on its face. It’s a classic all ends up. *Ahem*
The practically titled “Song 2″ is the song that broke Blur on a global level – that they became known Stateside as “the woo hoo guys” is hopefully a vicious rumour – and in doing resoundingly settled the initial debate as to whether it was a disposable bit of thrash or a work of genius. The answer of course was: no-one cared because they were all too busy loving the heck out of it. From “Country House” to this in consecutive LPs: well, damn. Oh and Alex James’s HUGE fuzz bass rivals his own contribution to “Girls & Boys” as a contender for greatest bass line ever committed to pop song.
What is so breathtaking about Blur is that the quality levels do not tail off from those two monumental opening tracks. The aforementioned Pavement influence really shines through on “Country Sad Ballad Man”, which is nevertheless still brimming with Blurry goodness in the form of Albarn’s octave-jumping verse vocal, Coxon’s compellingly twiddly guitar lines and that wonky, plodding groove. It’s masterfully and meticulously put together, erupting into noise with a nervous energy that’s utterly thrilling, and here was Coxon upping his already remarkable game by owning that six-stringed beast with Malkmus-like explosivity (screw you red squiggly line, it’s a word now); in fact, Coxon’s guitar work across the album is astonishingly inventive, leading bewilderingly wrought melody into jarring noise and back again with a one hundred per cent success rate. It is in Rocksucker’s considered opinion one of the finest album’s worths of lead guitar work – forgive this second lapse into (totally justified) hyperbole – ever.
Yes “M.O.R.” totally rips off Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging”, and this is a shame because in and of itself it’s a monster of a tune. We can only conclude that the lack of appreciation for this song even as a single was due to this mild controversy, because once again Coxon’s guitar work verges on description-defying; that octave-shredding intro and the ascending screeches that immediately follow each chorus, it is these outstanding contributions that keep “M.O.R.” in the realms of the downright essential.
“On Your Own” may be filtered through some kind of lo-fi minefield but it is unmistakably Blur, so much so that given a good scrubbing it could easily have featured in the unofficially dubbed “Life trilogy” (ie the previous three albums). Albarn is in inspired form both vocally and lyrically, leading riotously good lines like “Holy man tiptoed his way across the Ganges / The sound of magic music in his ears / Videoed by a bus load of tourists / Shiny shellsuits on, and drinking lemonade” into the chorus’s delirious chanting.
Suffice it to say, this third single to be taken from the album (“M.O.R.” was fourth) features a gob-smackingly original turn by Coxon, who lets his notes ring until they shudder, not to mention more fantastically twiddly, elastic bass from Alex James, who was quite conceivably born with his chosen instrument already in hand. Then there’s the ace whistly keyboard line that ended up forming the basis of quite a good remix.
Five tracks in, then, and we’ve already had four stunning singles, that is if we’re allowed to count the one which undeniably overstepped the mark in terms of musical ‘borrowing’, and the no-less-splendid “Country Sad Ballad Man”. That’s a start to an album fit to match that of Parklife, and you can’t give much higher praise than that.
The abandoned circus nightmare of “Theme From Retro” actually manages to sound pretty great, Blur just reminding everyone (and themselves?) how much they’re capable of, a more compelling example of which comes next in the form of the Coxon-penned and sung “You’re So Great”.
Rocksucker doesn’t know if Coxon originally intended for “You’re So Great” to be a full-band number (the acoustic rhythm might indicate not), but if he put down the bare bones and thought “you know what, it should stay like this” then there’s no faulting his judgement; “You’re So Great” shines from start to finish, placing sweetly delivered and instantly winning lyrics about caffeine consumption over beaming and deceptively sophisticated chord progressions, all adding up to a kind of loved-up glow that we could bask in endlessly. “You’re So Great” is simply summarised as one of those songs whose title is the first thing you’d say to it, if one could ever talk to or at a song somehow.
In stark contrast – that is in mood as opposed to quality – “Death of a Party” is a bit like “He Thought of Cars” making its malevolent way through the city streets at night, at least until its luminous lament of a chorus (“Go to another party and hang myself / Gently on the shelf”). Dave Rowntree’s funky drumming underpins the pervading darkness of Coxon’s shredding guitar and Albarn’s sinister circus organ something splendid, James’s rummaging, plinky bass confirming a full complement of musicians on the top of their respective games.
The punky thrash of “Chinese Bombs” electrifies like a leaner and meaner “Bank Holiday”, its shouty, rumbling, blaringly fuzzy frame for such inspired lyrics as “Chinese bombs, millions jump / Chairman’s junk, USA / Won’t somebody sink the place” clocking in at just 1 minute and 25 seconds. “I’m Just a Killer For Your Love” is at once strikingly un-Blur and so very, very Blur number, Coxon’s guitar swipes working like hip-hop scratching over Rowntree’s slow loping groove and the Bowie-esque melodic sharpness shining through the vague, foggy production. You can see why some might have dismissed this as Blur just noodling about to be difficult, but it’s their loss because it’s quietly magnificent.
“Good morning, lethargy / Drink Pepsi, it’s good for energy” begins “Look Inside America” in much the same way that “She said there’s ants in the carpet…” announces the arrival of “End of a Century”, and it is indeed invigorating stuff, a string-swept strum more reconcilably Blur than much of the album yet sill hinting at the stylistic shift with “Look inside America, she’s alright”. In a noteworthy song-writing twist, the verse carries the main brunt of the orchestrally decorated beauty while the chorus delivers on more of a glam stomp front. It works really, really well.
“Strange News From Another Star” does its title justice with a contemplative, soulfully psychedelic strum circled overhead by various unusual sounds shimmering harmonically away. “All I want to be / Is washed out by the sea / No Death Star over me / Won’t give me any peace / All I want is light relief / Put the crazies on the street / Give them guns and feed them meat / They’ll shoot the Death Star down / Dig a hole and put it down / A thousand miles underground” – lyrically this is one of Albarn’s finest moments, and the song goes on to acquire a driving monotone bass line that sounds as if it’s about to lead into something epic, but instead leads it down some strange alley and out of sight in a way that might not sound masterful but resoundingly is.
The ecstatic pop rush of “Movin’ On” is, apart from being an absolute joy, intriguing for being at once the most pointedly titled and most old-Blur-like song on the album, resplendent as it is with fuzz-glam goodness one bratty synth line and fantastically discombobulating lyrics like “At the music heist / I met the gourmet man / With aluminium lungs / Sucks out all he can / He sees the whole world go flip / In a stunt bug style / Cos he’s a parasite / With a cellulite pile”.
All of which leaves the whirring nocturnal sleaziness of “Essex Dogs” to bring to mind a musically grittier Pulp with its brooding spoken word, lyrical squalor and ominous, semi-whispered na na nas. It’s unlike anything Blur had done before, and ends with a hidden extra track that pretty much just comprises of flutterings of semi-ambient noise.
First up on the extras front is the distinctly Bowie-esque (uh oh…) “All Your Life”, which contains the conceivably self-referencing “Oh England, my love, you lost me / Made me look a fool” and bratty chorus nah nah nahs that give it an elated “Movin’ On” kind of feel. It’s a fine and elegant song but not ‘cracked’ enough to have sat well on the album, but then Blur in the main selected wisely. “A Spell (For Money)” brings more textbook wonkiness in ‘stoned jam’ form, while the detached, spot-of-sunlight-on-the-wall mysteriousness of “Woodpigeon Song” takes on a clattering beat and a fuzzy guitar before promptly fading out on them, all too brief at just 1:41.
“Dancehall” is weird, stodgy stoner rock along the lines of one of Pavement’s more discordant numbers, but with a softly chiming wilderness of a breakdown. It’s basically a thrashier, not-quite-as-compelling “Theme From Retro”, a jolly good show alright but not album-worthy. There’s more fuzzy strangeness and a tooting “Louie Louie” organ line in “Get Out of Cities”, the perfect B-side insomuch as (yes, we love that construction) it’s tremendous shout-along fare that broadens the visible horizon of the band at this time without being quite so special as to call into question their judgement.
“Polished Stone” sounds vague and unfinished in a “Killer For Your Love” sort of way, equipped with a similarly plodding beat to that of “Country Sad Ballad Man” while also exhibiting echoes of “Strange News From Another Star”, paving the way for the monstrous, blaring, six-minute fuzz stomp of “Bustin’ + Dronin'”, which wound up lending its title to an imported remix/live double-CD procured at the time by a young Rocksucker. It does indeed bust, and it sure does drone with that insistently repeated riff; you could even argue it to be one of the least Blur-like songs from this period, and one imagines it would sound very good in a live setting.
“Swallows in the Heatwave” kicks up a similarly sludgy wall of sound, throwing in sloppily/poppily Pavement-y ooh oohs and an expressed desire to “contribute to natural selection” with a razor, before the sleazy stomp of “Cowboy Song” rumbles with distortion underneath Albarn’s slightly unhinged vocal delivery, serving as primo scaring-off-the-teenyboppers fodder whether by intention or otherwise. It’s a bit like “Bustin’ + Dronin’ 2″, really.
We are then treated to live acoustic versions of “Beetlebum”, “On Your Own”, “Country Sad Ballad Man” and “This is a Low”, as well as “M.O.R.”, “Death of a Party” and “Song 2″ recorded live in Utrecht. All in all, there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of Rocksucker not declaring this to be an essential document of a band rebranding itself in ingenious fashion. Why no “Movin’ On (William Orbit Remix)”, though?
Rocksucker says: Five Quails out of Five!
The special edition of Blur’s eponymous fifth album, which has been remastered from the original tapes by Frank Arkwright and original producer Stephen Street, will be released on 30th July through EMI. For more information, please visit blur.co.uk/blur21/