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Review: Blur – The Great Escape (Special Edition)
Published on July 14th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Blur’s fourth album, 1995’s The Great Escape, has been contextualised to death, even dismissed as a “bad album” by Damon Albarn himself, so let’s just quickly mention the rivalry with Oasis (the so-called Battle of Britpop) and get on with discussing the music itself.
NB: This is not a review of the forthcoming remastered editions but of the original material.
“Stereotypes” is a brilliant opener, a blaring, bratty, Roobarb and Custard-y combination of keyboard and guitar leading into breezy yet attitudinal pop that’s tangential and expertly assembled. In terms of lyrical themes Albarn sets his stall out straight from the off, evidencing why the band had previously wanted to shoehorn the word ‘life’ into the album title for what would have been a third consecutive LP; “The suburbs they are sleeping but she’s dressing up tonight / She likes a man in uniform, he loves to wear it tight / They’re on the lover’s sofa, they’re on the patio / And when the fun is over watch themselves on video / The neighbours may be staring, but they are just past caring” – as you can see voyeurism is the first port of call on this latest Joycian journey through London’s seedy back-streets.
Graham Coxon’s guitar solo here is one of the most cartoony (cartooniest?) ever committed to pop song, unless of course it is actually a keyboard, in which case Rocksucker apologises to all affected by this oversight). Overall, “Stereotypes” wouldn’t have been a stand-out on Parklife but it’s a cut above all the same.
Despite the whole circus around it, the Dave Balfe-profiling “Country House” still sounds fantastic to this day. Sorry to drag said lunacy reluctantly into the 21st century, but play it back-to-back with Oasis’s “Roll With It” and it should have been clear even then who’d eventually win out long-term, which it looks as if Blur have in terms of general legacy.
“Country House” appeared to embody Britpop at the time but it has thankfully outlived it, so it would seem that it was timeless all along. To Rocksucker’s ears, it accomplishes that prime Ray Davies knack of being at once lots of fun and concealing a dark side, obviously in the form of Albarn’s superb lyrics but also with that ominously triumphant brass section at the end, which somehow manages to sound like the world leaving our Prozac-popping, Balzac-reading, herbal bath-taking protagonist behind.
“Best Days” sounds almost wearied by its own beauty in a way that matches its better-known team mate “The Universal”, its chorus lyric – “Other people wouldn’t like to hear you / If you said that these are the best days of their lives / Other people’d turn around and laugh at you / If you said that these are the best days of our lives” – striking as prescient amidst the Cool Britannia post-mortem. Musically it gifts us a swooning string arrangement, gorgeous, descending harmonised guitar couplets courtesy one assumes of Coxon, and Albarn’s typically fairground-y, ornately trilly piano line. A classic Blur ballad and no mistake.
“Charmless Man” is utterly, utterly superb, bratty but clever with it and graced with a lyrical and melodic set-up worthy of the aforementioned Mr Davies. This writer remembers watching Blur performing this on Top of the Pops at the time, and Albarn was wearing a tracksuit. Such are the wonders of the future that a video of this was traceable in seconds…
Here’s the official video…
After “Charmless Man” descends majestically through the keys for its outro, “Fade Away” decorates a cheesy bossa nova drum machine beat with a Specials-y-sounding portrait of a married couple that hardly ever get to spend any time together due to their respective work commitments (“Long hours kept them busy / Now when she’s in, he’s out”), before acquiring a kind of menacing stomp and drawing the rather unhappy conclusion “All you ever do is fade away”.
Incidentally, do any of our dear readers know if this song is in any way a result of Blur jettisoning the supposed initial ska version of “The Universal”? Presuming of course that they wouldn’t have put two ska tracks on the same album, not that they wouldn’t have been perfectly entitled to.
“Fade Away” ends suitably with a fade-out, setting the stage for “Top Man” to represent The Great Escape‘s first misfire. Satirical it may be but it in Rocksucker’s humble opinion it just isn’t a very good Blur song; smart and strange, yes, but not particularly memorable. That’s not to say it’s bad but it unwittingly sums up its place in Blur’s back catalogue with the lyric “in a crowd it’s hard to spot him”
“He’s riding through the desert on a Camel Light” is an ace though, as is the background utterance of “open sesame!”.
“The Universal” is one of the several Blur songs that everyone should know, acknowledging that that darned advert will have effectively ‘bumped’ it up in the national consciousness. Anyone who thought Blur had become too smart for their own good by this point obviously wasn’t taking stuff like this into account; it’s so soulful, rousing, blissful, perfect. Blur had indeed become smart, very smart, but it was for everyone’s good.
Apparently the first song to be recorded for the album, “Mr Robinson’s Quango” is a delightfully sleazy romp that could easily have been on the second half of Parklife. It’s tangential and multi-faceted in a way only a select few bands can still make sound like great pop, and it delights further by ending in a paranoid circus nightmare. Meanwhile the ensuing “He Thought of Cars” seems with hindsight like a kind of precursor to “Strange News From Another Star” and perhaps “Death of a Party” too, mournful yet wonderful and very conceivably an influence on early Super Furry Animals, especially with the la la la section over an angular psych-grunge-glam-pop chord sequence.
“It Could Be You”, apparently the last to be recorded, flaunts its cheekily pilfered National Lottery slogan like a fashion statement lent instant credibility by its own total ingeniousness. It may not be a widely shared sentiment but “It Could Be You” has been a Rocksucker favourite from the get-go, wedding as it does lyrics like “The likely lads (likely lads!) / Are picking up the uglies / Yesterday they were just puppies / Beery slurs now life’s a blur / Telly addicts / You should see them at it / Getting in a panic / Will we be there? / Trafalgar square” to a glorious example of deceptively sophisticated pop song-writing. It’s hardly ground-breaking, but its tongue-in-cheek charm is perfectly placed in the running order.
Say what you may about Ken Livingstone, but he’s done lead vocal on a Blur track and you haven’t (unless of course you actually have, in which case we apologise). “Ernold Same” may or may not be responsible for the approx. fifty million adverts that have adhered to the “same seat, same train, same etc” theme. Not one of them will possess the dreamlike quality of this confounding little waltz, that’s for damn sure.
“Globe Alone” is like “Jubilee” but rantier and more discordant, a full-throttle rocker with a Supergrass-y mid-section and daft lyrics like “Who joined health club to glisten? / Into hi-fi precision? / Who mobile phone gives him the bone? / Who very keen on Sharon Stone?”, and it’s followed by the wonky, spidery, trashy cartoon Blur of the anagrammatical “Dan Abnormal”. Albarn relinquishes responsibility for his technology-addled alter ego with “…it’s not his fault, we made him this way” and “Dan watches TV! TV! TV!”. The music’s silly swagger is conceivably akin to that of Dan Abnormal when he marches up to the burger bar and demands a “McNormal and chips / Or I’ll blow you to bits”.
Next up is one of Blur’s very finest moments, the utterly majestic “Entertain Me”. It’s got a great clattering beat, grinding noises, a Bond-like guitar riff, and a chorus that hadn’t struck Rocksucker as such before but might very well be a blueprint-of-sorts for SFA’s “Slow Life”. There are more brilliant ideas packed into this song than most bands (insert illustrative example of Blur’s superiority here), and when they all come together at the end in one glorious amalgamation of brilliant ideas…well, it’s just stunning.
“Yuko & Hiro”‘s statements of subservience could be construed as offensive but it make for a pretty weak argument since the pretty much every track on the album deals with oppression and disenfranchisemen. What “Yuko & Hiro” is however is a disorientingly whirry, beautifully understated and sweetly sentimental subversion ballad, the simple yet spine-tingling song of the Japanese counterparts of the couple from “Fade Away”, They may work at the same factory but, alas, “I never see you / We’re never together / I love you forever”, and it’s so beautiful that you almost want to find this couple and issue them each with a restraining order from the other to see if any more great music can be extracted from their plight. Almost.
Onwards into the bonus material, “One Born Every Minute” is a cool, breezy trot with duck whistle accompaniment, and we are then given “To the End (La Comedie)”, which is basically the same thing but in French, featuring Francoise Hardy and with a more Bacharachian feel. That lovely circus riff at the end is Gallic’ed up with accordion and for some reason there’s an extended woodwind ‘n’ string outro.
“Ultranol” could have slotted quite nicely onto album, perhaps ahead of “Top Man”; its imagined sales pitch is inspired (“Ultranol will put you on the map / Take four or five then have a little nap / When you wake up you’ll feel better”) and there’s a darkness to its exuberantly punky skank that is alleviated in style by a jauntily Kinks-y, “suck ’em and see!”-topped trot at the end. “No Monsters in Me”, the tale of one Gary Golf, is basically “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand except of course several years earlier and with added melody and la la las.
At seven-odd minutes long, “Entertain Me (Live It! Remix)” is way more ’90s ‘club mix’ unnecessariness than you’d ideally have at the end of the running order so as not to disrupt the flow of actual songs. However, if hi-hat fills, octave-bouncing synths and that boom boom boom boom / boom boom boom BOOM-BOOM (repeat ad infinitum) beat happen to be your thing then indulge away, you erstwhile raver, you!
Coxon makes a magnificent discordant jangle for his lead part on “The Man Who Left Himself”, a downcast, menacing strum that’s definitely too odd to have been on the album but is a very good thing to have about the place nonetheless, while “Tame” – which references at least two different Pixies songs in the same phrase, namely the titular one – may be seen as a precursor to the sound of Blur’s next, eponymous album but its grunginess still plays host to harmonised aaaahhhhs and a whirring sci-fi keyboard lick. But yeah, you can see the progression. Very good stuff, even with/partially down to the outright theft from Pixies.
The delightfully peculiar “Ludwig” starts as a softly alluring slow-skank with delicious hummed topping, quickens up as Damon starts going “ay ay ay!” like that panicky robot out of Power Rangers, turns into a mad Mexican brass band thing and finally speeds up ‘n’ out.
“The Horrors” begins like a traumatised “Fade Away” before taking on luxurious piano and sounding very soothing, coming across like a smoother, jazzier take on one of The Kinks’ instrumental out-takes circa Village Green. “A Song” significantly pre-dates Think Tank‘s preoccupation with “…Song”-titled songs, sounding oddly like Simian pre-Mobile Disco, albeit six or seven ears earlier, and clocking in at under two minutes after some mournfully sloppy doo doo-ing which seems to hint at “Caramel” to come on 13.
The light ‘n’ fuzzy “St. Louis” is no stunner but instantly appealing nonetheless, quite early Pavement-y in fact and home to a fetching trumpet line, and then you’ve got a bunch of live tracks followed by the triplet-y arpeggio simplicity of “Eine Kleine Lift Music”, Blur’s contribution to the Help Album for War Child in 1995, which is underpinned by out-of-tune piano but becomes quite the flight of fancy with its stirring strings and dreamy sway.
As an overall period in the band’s recording history, The Great Escape era only sporadically scales the heights of Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife, but there’s more than enough seminal material here to merit…
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
The 21st anniversary special edition of The Great Escape, 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/