For those of you who still believe, after all the intervening years, that Damon Albarn’s songwriting is rooted in the oom-pah music-hall stomp of Britpop, I cannot recommend enough that you try on both 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, both of which are prime examples of Blur giving up on the style that made them such household names, and instead choosing to pursue more experimental and at times difficult music, taking heed of far more wide-ranging influences.
In the aftermath of the Battle of Britpop, which saw Blur win the race to be #1 on the Singles chart – with the cringeworthy “Country House” – but Oasis win the battle of the albums, with (What’s The Story) Morning Glory, Blur soon realised the fickle nature of British music, and how quickly the public – who at the time were enchanted by the elision of music and politics made real by the superb efforts of our dear leader, Tony Blair – could abandon a group who they had previously loved. Rather than continue to pump out album-after-album of derivative, uninteresting music (I’m looking at you, Oasis), Blur instead fled to the country they had previously artistically slaughtered – America – in search of new ideas.
The resulting album, Blur, saw Graham Coxon take on a much more prominent role, influenced as he was by mainstays of American alternative music, such as Pavement and Beck, while Albarn’s lyrics took on a decidely more introspective angle, a theme that was to be extended on their next album. Blur remained reasonably commercially successful in the UK, but, crucially, it was equally a hit in America, whose audiences immediately ‘got’ “Song 2”. Even now, I think the album is a great testament to the breadth of the band’s talents, and the opener, “Beetlebum”, is right up there in my top three Blur songs. The band, freed from the pomp and circumstance of Britpop, produced an album that was bleaker, wilder and harsher, but, importantly, a strong melodic vein flows right through, giving it just enough warmth for the listener to want to come back to it.
Story has it that, during the recording process for Blur, Coxon refused to let anyone, including himself, retune his guitar, believing that the truest artistic statement would be to embrace the lo-fi. Perhaps thankfully, producer Stephen Street, horrified at the prospect of unveiling an album horribly out-of-tune to the record company, would secretly come into the studio in the dead of night to retune it!
One of the spirits that leans heavily on Blur is that of Bowie. Unashamed to join the canon of great British songwriters, Albarn’s compositions share a talent for experimentation, and also something intangibly similar, with those of Bowie – none more so than one of the closing tracks, “Strange News From Another Star”, which feels almost violated in its raw emotion. The combination of harsh electronic feedback and sweet acoustic guitar is painful in its emotional tug. With a typical sense of duty and sincerity, Albarn later performed it for a BBC Radio session honouring John Peel, the video of which is at the top of this post. In this context, it is a haunting and beautiful tribute to another demi-god of British music.