Review: Blur – Modern Life is Rubbish (Special Edition)
Published on July 13th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Following on from our review of the 21st anniversary Special Edition version of Blur’s debut album Leisure, Rocksucker shall move swiftly on to one of our very favourite LPs, not to mention one which has been credited with/accused of ‘inventing’ Britpop: yes, it’s their 1993 follow-up Modern Life is Rubbish, the soon-to-be-released Special Edition thereof.
NB: This is not a review of the forthcoming remastered editions but of the original material.
Quoth Blur’s official site: “The Modern Life Is Rubbish Special Edition is housed in a deluxe lift-off lid box with four exclusive Blur artwork postcards and an expanded booklet that includes previously unseen photos and liner notes based on a brand new interview with all the band members.” Sounds scrumptious, but what of the music inside?
By now Blur had retreated from the limelight, stewed over the charges of cashing in on the Madchester phenomenon and shed their baggy stylings altogether in favour of something altogether more Ray Davies/David Bowie-like: a killer knack for melody, atonal chord progressions/structures and of course a keen knack for lyrical storytelling. That evolution or sea change, call it what you will, is pretty much why they shall be headlining the Olympics closing ceremony all these years later. Basically, it spawned so many truly great songs that these days – steady flow of new material notwithstanding (and fingers crossed for that) – a ‘greatest hits’-type live set is practically unavoidable.
Opener “For Tomorrow” is flipping beautiful and would still come as a striking blow for classic pop songwriting were it to come out today. Indeed it is in Rocksucker’s considered opinion one of the all-time great opening tracks, an emphatic announcement of Blur’s arrival as a band that most other bands could only aspire to be like, four excellent musicians whose respective, distinctive styles blended together in a way that’s really quite unlikely when you think about it. Nevertheless, these talented individuals chanced upon each other and Modern Life is Rubbish represents their first magnum opus, that is if an artist is allowed to have more than one.
Look at us, spluttering superlatives already. Even Damon Albarn’s lyrics are superb, as much of which is clear from: “She’s a twentieth century girl / With her hands on the wheel / Trying not to be sick again / Seeing what she can borrow / London’s so nice back in your seamless rhymes / But we’re lost on the West way / So we hold each other tightly / And we can wait until tomorrow”. And they’re off!
A cheesy, sampled proclamation of “food processors are great!” signals the arrival of totally rocking second track “Advert”, which thunders along on playfully menacing punk-pop as righteously as a young Supergrass would do the following year on their still-astonishing debut album I Should Coco. “You need fast relief from aches and stomach pains” Albarn half-chants, mirroring the refreshingly smart pop melodicism Modern Life… brought back after the predominance of all that grunge from across the pond.
Graham Coxon’s not-quite-wah-wah lead guitar fans “Colin Zeal” towards as Alex James’s concrete squiggles of bass rise and plummet ingeniously, launching into a fantastically angular chorus that borders on psych-pop, paving the way for another barbed tale of urban ennui in the form of “Pressure on Julian” (allegedly about erstwhile Teardrop Explodes singer Cope). Like its immediate predecessor, “Pressure on Julian” spews forth strange angular riffs, spot-on Coxon harmonies and genuinely inventive instrumentation, each unit of the band functioning compellingly on their own yet gelling so seamlessly – it gradually increases in tempo, releases the building tension and then comes back in as before, an interesting dynamic that would never even have occurred to Noel Gallagher.
“Star Shaped” is absolutely stellar (arf!) pop songwriting and rather sophisticated with it – try playing it yourself, it’s a bit of a quirky one and all the more fun for it. Despite its idiosyncrasies, its upbeat melodies shine so brightly that it feels like the most natural thing in the world, the ting! that comes in at the end of Coxon’s “We don’t think so / You seem star shaped!” arriving like a lightbulb over Blur’s collective head, symbolising the sudden surge of inspiration that saw them steam past their rivals like Wigan Athletic in the last eight games of a season (apologies to anyone reading who might not be up on their English football references).
“Blue Jeans” is anthemic but in a much sweeter, more gently soulful way than the stadium-rock fare that word usually gets applied to, co-habiting the same blissed-out space as Super Furry Animals’ “(Nid) Hon Yw’r Gan Sy’n Mynd I Achub Yr laith” while also exhibiting shades of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain-era Pavement, a band that would of course go on to be quite the influence on Blur’s eponymous 1997 LP. “I don’t really wanna change a thing / I wanna stay this way forever” Albarn intones swoonsomely, at once demonstrating the leaps and bounds he’d been coming on in as a vocalist and belying the stylistic shifts that Blur would continue to make from here on in.
We then have the single “Chemical World”, which…well, it’s “Chemical World”, isn’t it? A cast-iron Blur classic. Oh, that instantly winning lead guitar hook, those wonderful lyrics about “eating chocolate to induce sleep” and other such fascinatingly-rendered banalities, that anthemic (again..) “until you can see right through”-topped carry-off that points forwards to the “he’s on, he’s on, he’s on it” section of “Beetlebum”…oh, it’s all so beautiful, and it’s followed by the grin-inducing racket of instrumental interlude “Intermission”, which begins as a strange circus theme on piano, is then met with dirty skank guitar chords, and proceeds to oversee the whole band speeding up in tandem and into a riotous, ridiculous maelstrom. Ace, ace and thrice ace.
Dave Rowntree’s poundingly bouncy drum beat heralds the entrance of “Sunday, Sunday”, a brass-assisted celebration of Little England mundanity that suddenly bursts into wild ‘n’ wonky circus-punk, rather than building towards it gradually as with “Intermission”. “You dream of protein on a plate / Regret you left it quite so late / To gather the family round the table to eat enough to sleep / And Mother’s Pride is your epithet / That extra slice you’ll soon regret / So going out is your best bet, then bingo yourself to sleep / Oh the Sunday sleep!” – compare and contrast, if you’re so inclined, with the lyrics of pretty much any Oasis song you could care to mention.
Up next is the shimmering yet suitably murky psychedelia of “Oily Water”, which steps up into a sludgy stomp for its compelling “oooooh” of a chorus, retreats to the jangly spikiness of the verse boasting one of James’s most magnificent bass lines, then builds into an hypnotic wall of noise that sticks around just long enough to clear the way for the even-more-psychedelic “Miss America” (who’s Michael, by the way?), the mysterious, chorus-soaked sparsity of which makes a wonderful nest for Albarn’s dry, high-in-the-mix vocal. His distracted-sounding delivery of lines like “She’s a well-wisher and she wishes you well / Wish away, wish away” is almost impossibly dreamy, while Coxon’s wibbly guitar is subtle yet practically perfect.
Unfortunately, the album makes its first misstep with “Villa Rosie”, which although startling of opening line (“Practice doesn’t make perfect when you’re interbreeding”) feels a bit too much like a poorer man’s “Pressure on Julian” or “Colin Zeal”. Still, it’s oddly nice to have a chorus ending with the words “so tasty”, and that whirling build-up of layered guitar noise is pretty cool. Coxon’s jerky, twiddly guitar lines in the faintly peculiar verse are awesome too – basically this song’s problem, and that of the run-of-the-mill “Coping” up next, is that they are merely good songs on an album jam-packed with great ones.
In the wake of these decidedly ‘subs bench’ offerings, the otherwise disposable “Turn It Up” gets the album back up and running with a sun-kissed feel-good factor factor that overrides the ostensibly nonsensical lyrics such as “kazoo, kazoo, you are mine”. Then it’s time for “Resigned” to paint itself as a more rueful cousin of “Blue Jeans” with its weary, pared-down loveliness housing a softly rendered yet affecting Albarn lament. “I think too much on things I want too much / It makes me hateful and I say stupid things” – you may say stupid things, Damon, but you sing beautiful things.
“Commercial Break” brings the album proper to a close with more brilliant instrumental rambunctiousness, gradually gaining intensity, peaking on a thrilling riff then disappearing in a flash like a punkier “Lot 105” (see next review). First up on the extras front is contemporaneous standalone single “Popscene”, a thrilling, full-throttle thing so storming of brass section and so biting of lyric (“And everyone is a clever clone / A chrome coloured clone am I / So in the absence of a way of life / Just repeat this again and again”) that it’s a crying shame not to have it grace the original LP running order like it did on my old import version of the album, just before “Resigned” since you ask. Not enough people know it but “Popscene” is a true Blur classic.
Onto B-side territory, “Mace” swoops in with thundering, metallic bass and grin-inducing lead guitar swipes, delighting further with some great phrasing on “eye-uh-uh-eyes!”; indeed “Mace” could well have featured on the album ahead of “Coping” or “Villa Rosie”, although there are even better hypothetical candidates amongst this ample collection of out-takes.
“Badgeman Brown” brings a new sort of texture with the unfamiliar sound of its rhythm section, and it’s a welcome one. Guitars whirr and grind before it all lulls into a contemplative acoustic section that pounds itself back on track, taking on a “Pressure on Julian”/”Oily Water” kind of stomp as it does the ‘gradually speeding up’ thing that Blur were evidently having a whale of a time with at this time. “I’m Fine” is brilliantly tossed-off in a “Turn It Up” sort of way, a Hoedown-y guitar jangle with galloping drums and a louche breeziness to it that marks a group spewing out more good ideas than they knew what to do with.
The My Bloody Valentine-ish instrumental “Garden Central” could have worked well as an album track though it might have made it one instrumental too many – it’s quite Pavement-y as well, like a moodier “5-4=Unity” from Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain – and we then have “For Tomorrow (visit to Primrose Hill Extended)”, the extension of which owes to a brassy instrumental section, and the stompy, tangential “Into Another”.
“Peach”, which appeared as track 69 on my old import copy of Modern Life… (tracks 18-67 are silent), can be filed alongside “Blue Jeans” and “Resigned” without being quite as beautiful as either of them. It’s still plenty lovely, laid-back and lyrical (“You’ve got a gaping hole in your head / I’d let the birds nest there instead”), and “Bone Bag” has a bit of the “Blue Jeans” about it too, going off on one gently and acoustically, if you accept that such a delicate touch can be conducive to ‘going off on one”.
“Hanging Over” showcases an intriguingly syncopated beat and a tremendous raucous vocal delivery from Albarn, before the really rather wonderful “When the Cows Come Home” – track 68 on my old import – imagines what “Sunday Sunday” might have been like had it been written by Paul McCartney in music hall mode, plodding brass section and all. “Wake up a little voice says / To you eagerly / You mustn’t let yourself sink financially / Don’t listen to the accusation that you’re tight / You could be the first man on your street to get it right” – it’s all so jolly yet oddly wistful, should definitely have been on album, and it fits in so well with Modern Life…‘s running themes that it absolutely should have featured. “That dirty town” indeed.
“Beachcoma” is a moody, thoughtful and authoritative stomp (“They found a low” sings Albarn; Blur would of course go on to pinpoint a low at the tail end of their next LP, and what a high that was/is!), “Chemical World (Reworked)” a fairly pointless exercise, “Es Schmecht” a peculiar little song with a strange, honking brass section, while the romantic, Bowie-esque “Young and Lovely” is another to make a strong retrospective case for inclusion (noted here).
We are then treated to an amusingly Motown-y cover of “Maggie May”, the riffy ‘n’ rumbling “My Ark”, “Please excuse my tendency to colour everything I tell you / But in my mind there’s nothing that really ever holds us from the truth” keeping the lyrical standard high even in these obscure recesses; and finally Albarn tries a campy hand and music hall standards “Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Made for Two)” and “Let’s All Go the Strand”.
1 x seminal album + 1 x sporadically inspired lorry-load of extras = four and a half quails out of five, but we’re so in love with and grateful for Modern Life is Rubbish that we couldn’t in good conscience award it any less than…
Rocksucker says: Five Quails out of Five!
The 21st anniversary special edition of Modern Life is Rubbish, 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/