How do you define Blur? The band forged their career by stylistically swerving left and right as dueling talents Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon fought for control of the wheel. By 1997 they’d built their fortune on cheeky characters, sticky hooks, cockney voices, country houses and charmless men. It made Blur Britain’s biggest singles band but it didn’t make them happy. Relationships became strained as Britpop-era media interest pressed down on them like a hydraulic car crusher. In another universe, the group fracture, don’t make their self-titled album – which turns 20 years old today – and we’re starved of the best full-length record in their treasured discography.
No one joins a rock band so they can engage in a synthetic battle with another bunch of guitar twiddlers. Blur never intended to compete with Oasis. Tabloid newspapers and British music magazines amplified the animosity between the two groups, selling a lot of newsprint by doing so. Blur enjoyed inflated sales because of the attention, but they lost the power to define themselves as a band outside of the Cool Britannia, Loaded magazine, New Labour, Britpop hysteria. The band were toffs compared to Manchester’s working class Gallagher brothers – that was the narrative. The connection between both groups was as artificial as cheap leather, but it risked defining Blur’s legacy.
Their fifth album was the antidote. Coxon’s chugging, muted guitar strums that open first song “Beetlebum” clears away the clutter that had entered the band’s orbit. A booming four-note guitar riff ushers in a mean new era. The razor-sharp arrangements were risky for a band defined by fun radio jams like “Girls and Boys.” But this wasn’t a forced run at broadsheet acceptance. No experimentation for the sake of experimentation. These were songs that built on the band’s past and drew on their collective strengths. 14 tracks and 57 minutes that redefined the name etched right into the title – Blur.
Pavement lit the touchpaper. The Californian band’s oddly tuned guitars and offbeat melodies where the antithesis to Britain’s pork scratchings rock ‘n’ roll groups. Coxon absorbed Pavement’s catalogue like it was blessed scripture. Delving deeper into the US indie rock canon (Dinosaur Jr were another key touching point), he began to resent Albarn for the direction Blur had been pulled. In a March 1996 piece for Q magazine that described the band as being “on the edge of a verge of a nervous break-up,” journalist Adrian Devoy asked Coxon what forces had the power to split them up. “Death. Or if we made another Parklife,” he replied.
Albarn himself sounded remorseful. In a 1997 interview with early online music magazine Addicted to Noise, he described mega hit “Country House” as a “brilliant song for a musical”, admitting that it’s “a bit confusing if you’re essentially a guitar band to have something like that.”
When asked what inspired the stylistic turn on Blur in the same interview, Albarn responded: “Soul repair.”
Sessions for Blur began in June 1996 at London’s Mayfair Studios under the watch of long-time producer Stephen Street, but eventually moved to Reykjavík, Iceland, away from the Britpop pressure cooker. A new sound also brought new procedures. “With this album, we just threw everything up in the air,” Coxon told Addicted to Noise. “It was the first time we sort of jammed. We’ve never really jammed before. We’ve been quite white-coaty, overall about recording, like in a laboratory. Yeah, we did actually feel our way through just playing whatever came to our minds and editing, which was really exciting.”
Moving away from their jaunty pop sound, Blur probably never intended the sessions to produce home run 45s. Yet the album opens with two of their best singles ever. “Beetlebum” is Albarn’s grim, thinly-veiled ode to heroin. “And when she lets me slip away/ She turns me on and all my violence’s gone.” This was dark, open-book songwriting – the inverse of his tall tales of professional cynics (“Country House”) and habitual voyeurs (“Parklife”). Pavement’s influence can be heard as Coxon’s guitars interlock and the solos echo outwards. As a table setter, it gets the job done.
Coxon’s parody of grunge music was the grimiest guitar single this side of Seattle. Hilariously, the gag gifted Blur their biggest stateside hit. “Song 2” is short, immediate and Cobainian in its approach. Coxon and drummer Dave Rowntree set up two drum kits to summon the spirit of Dave Grohl, putting some extra clobber into the meanly-thumped percussion. The guitarist’s jagged riffs and Alex James’ bass comes together to fill the soundscape to its absolute outer reaches, while Albarn’s lyrics make next to no sense. Some simple “whoo hoo”s will suffice when you can’t wait around to write a chorus.
Albarn has described the digital blips and scratchy guitars of “On Your Own” as “one of the first ever Gorillaz tunes.” But with its horror movie loops, spaghetti western guitar licks and chugging trip-hop grooves, the twisted beauty of “Death of a Party” plays more like the origin story to me. On the opposite side of the stylistic spectrum, “Strange News From Another Star” saw Albarn, inspired by Iceland’s long nights, to blast off into another galaxy. “All I want to be is washed out by the sea/ No death star over me/ Won’t give me any peace,” he somberly sings over acoustic strums. Electronics echo off the starship’s aluminum walls. The singer sounds isolated. Nothing to keep him company in the vast abyss of space except the spirit of David Bowie.
More so than any other track, “Look Inside America” finds Blur dressed in older garments. That well-respected Englishness that brought the band 1,000 comparisons to The Kinks is once again tangible. The ill-mannered melody and playful bounce recalls “Country House.” The song connects past and present. A morsel for fans of the old Blur to cling to. Not everyone was into the changes.
Upon its release, NME’s John Robinson rated Blur seven out of ten, calling it “last orders at the Albarn Fun Pub.” Previous albums Parklife and The Great Escape had received nines, though the album did snag a nomination for NME’s album of the year award. Blur were bound by less stylistic expectations in the US and, predictably, the album was received more warmly across the water. James Hunter of Rolling Stone wrote: “This is a record that inhabits current American rock biases as cogently and intelligently as Parklife corralled the last few decades of British rock.”
Time has a funny way of pulling the classics from the weeds. Today Blur is recognised as a key pillar in the band’s discography. Its scorched earth ethos – coupled with the cocaine-fueled disaster that was Oasis’s 1997 Be Here Now – is credited with killing off Britpop for good. Blur had astutely positioned themselves in the brave new world.
Gorillaz would emerge the following year, building on Blur’s experimentation. If you’re in doubt of “Death of a Party”’s influence, listen to a Gnarls Barkley album. Albarn would tap one-half of the duo, DJ Danger Mouse, to co-produce his virtual band’s second LP Demon Days in 2005. “Crazy” would hit big just a few months later.
The grubby acoustic jam “You’re So Great” set a sonic template for Coxon’s first few solo albums. Embarrassed to use his voice, he recorded the song in the studio from under a table with the lights switched off. His emergence as a vocalist would help define Blur’s latter day output, though they’d never again make such a sharp stylistic turn. Released in 1999, follow up album 13 maintained the indie rock outlook, albeit with far darker tones as Albarn dealt with the dissolving of his relationship with girlfriend Justine Frischmann of the band Elastica.
Oddly, “Beetlebum” and “Song 2” were also chosen to open greatest hits compilation Blur: The Best Of in 2000. It’s as though the band could scarcely hide their awkwardness of what had come before their self-titled record. I wonder how many other tracks from Blur they’d have plucked for the release if not for the necessity of balance.
A lost of distance has since been run. Cool Britannia was crushed, nothing left but coffee and TV. Landfill indie emerged, Coxon quit Blur and Britain went to war. The band fractured and fully reformed, their legacy having long been secured – a legacy written by the group and not a tabloid journalist. Post-1997 Blur are a band without contemporaries. Oasis were nowhere to be seen in their rearview; no younger band moved through the same sonic lane. Blur was the genesis of all that. The band needed this album and, as it turned out, so did we.