The vision of London dreamt up by Blur has always resembled to me that of Martin Amis’s invention. To both these artists, London is not just the locus of worthwhile stories, but also the point of departure for stranger places. Blur’s final pair of songs reassure me that this was no illusion.
Amis’s books are full of aptronymic caricatures, saying outrageous things, standing for deeper morals (or lack thereof). Keith Talent. Guy Clinch. John Self. The names seem necessarily abbreviated; completed only when we guess accurately at their traits and states of mind. Similarly, Damon Albarn spent the better part of a decade populating Blur’s albums with a hyperreal British society: the disgruntled civil servant, Tracy Jacks; the role-playing suburban couple of “Stereotypes”; the idealised Albion, viewed from up on Primrose Hill, in “For Tomorrow”.
Albarn and Coxon grew up in Essex, studied in New Cross, but found some solace in the wasteland under the Westway—that concrete imposition which brutally carved through 1960s West London. Albarn, a putative polymath, later built his studio there; it still serves as the hub of his creative universe. That same ruined landscape, with its abruptly-forgotten enclaves like White City, Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Green, was lovingly the backdrop for Amis’s masterworks. In London Fields, Keith Talent slobbered and plotted in The Black Cross on Portobello Road, then kicked and punched his way back to a disgusting flat in Trellick Tower.
Blur could also be as brash as Amis’s prose, though this wasn’t their strongest suit; nonetheless, neon lights and obdurate arrangements make songs like “Stereotypes”, “Oily Water” and “Bugman” what they are. Now, at the very end of their career, they have written “The Puritan”, which continues in this vein. There’s a tinpot drum machine, annoying buzzing synths, and occasional spurts of punkish, brilliance from Graham Coxon’s guitar-as-chainsaw, which evokes comparison with moments of “Essex Dogs”. At its halfway point, the song falls gracefully into a terrace chant, Albarn’s balletic poetry descending into wordless joy and abandon, devoted to the art of letting oneself go. I think it’s supposed to be claustrophobic, cheap and nasty.
But at their best, Blur brought beauty to the unloved times and spaces: the twilight zones of “Strange News From Another Star” and “No Distance Left To Run”, for example. Back in 1995, they wrote an epitaph for the British Empire, expressed through the metaphor of the shipping forecast. “This Is A Low” was, arguably, Britpop’s finest achievement. It was elegiac, with a patina, and also anthemic, if only for a doomed generation. It’s fitting, then that the other composition in Blur’s final brace of songs is heavily indebted to “This Is A Low”. “Under The Westway” is an appropriate epitaph for the band, channelling many of their favoured thematic and musical tropes through a deflated grandeur. The percussion rumbles and clangs like the dying industrial machine referenced in the lyrics, and the piano part has an everyday, assembly-hall ring to it. Again, Coxon colours in the song, but this time with lilting arpeggios and faint, upsetting wails. The vestigial melodica near the song’s end does not sound out of place—everywhere is doomed to end, and we are supposed to take comfort in this fact.
Blur’s final two gifts explore two of the focal characteristics of Amis’s œuvre: “The Puritan” captures the brash brattiness; “Under The Westway”, the surprising tenderness directed at an anonymous patch of scorched earth. This pair of songs sums up Blur’s London: hedonistic, but crawling back to a prudish hinterland. It could stand in for much of their entire career.
Photo credits: Flickr user “pixelhut“