Continuing with the theme of unlikely favourite albums by bands, today I bring you the surprising admission that my favourite Blur album is… not Parklife, Modern Life Is Rubbish, or even the underrated eponymous Blur, but 1999’s moody and introspective 13. Recorded in a pre-millennial, post-Britpop world, 13 is an emotionally raw and musically exhilarating account of broken relationships and a dissatisfaction with the prevalent chart trends.
It is worth noting that, in his excellent account of the Britpop era, The Last Party, journalist John Harris locates the creative high watermark of the time as being “This Is A Low” – the totally un-music-hall-stomp closer to Parklife, which channelled a very English sense of nostalgia (a relationship, described through the metaphor of the shipping forecast, of all things) through a musical style that hovers halfway between The Kinks, Neil Young, and early Pink Floyd. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that Blur would go on to make, in my opinion, their finest work when they intentionally severed all ties with the parodic soap opera that was Britpop, and ventured further into the songwriting toolbox that they undoubtedly possessed.
13 is undoubtedly a difficult listen, and yet it begins on a false promise, with the strangely uplifting gospel-backed “Tender”, which grows slowly and serenely from a wistful and lonely music box, through a processional guitar figure, into an achingly weepy epic. It is little wonder that, years later, Damon Albarn would get all emotional when performing the song in the absence of Graham Coxon. The various twists and turns the song takes in its backing instrumentation seem to depict an external fragility and precariousness of the band, which peels away to reveal a rock-solid core of a song underneath – the perfect image for the band on this album, as they weave in and out of ambient soundscapes, scratchy noise rock, meandering krautrock, under the who-knows-how-watchful eye of producer William Orbit.
Where Blur suggested a band in flux, throwing themselves into a genre (lo-fi American alternative) for the sake of being different, without fully believing in the cause, 13 shows the quartet completing their mastery of a range of different styles, each suffused with a typically dark, wry humour that would come to characterise the band far more than any one sonic palette.
The remainder of 13 is unwelcomingly beautiful, in an alien and inhospitable way – again, a true reflection of Albarn’s mental state, pitched as he was into a painful break-up and a getaway to Iceland. Songs like “Bugman”, “Swamp Song” and “B.L.U.R.E.M.I” are rightfully angry and confused and goofy; others, like “Coffee & TV” and “Mellow Song”, betray a love of affectionate melodies and storytelling.
Then, halfway through the album, things shift up a gear in the melancholy stakes, with the sonically dazzling “Battle” heralding a total immersion in sadness through samples and beats. “Trailer Park”, with its jarring, perplexing refrain of “I lost my baby to the Rolling Stones” (because to me, Blur were always much more similar in scope and ambition to the Beatles), takes unexpected diversions through sonar pings and industrial grind. “Caramel” emerges from a fog of organ and intricate guitar, and takes on a new life as a Can-style krautrock journey – feedback and an otherworldly palette of noises ricochet between the channels, held down by the insistent drumming of Dave Rowntree. In the last of these weird-out experiments, “Trimm Trabb” morphs from a mellow, house-piano meandering into a knuckle-grating freak-out, with Albarn’s affected vocals resembling a man gargling with treacle and acid.
The whole beast dissolves into an uneasy, fragmented chorus of seemingly unconnected vocals, which leads beautifully into the traditional Blur-faux-album-closer of “No Distance Left To Run”, which sounds like “This Is A Low”, driven to suicide, not on the “white cliffs of Dover”, but on some distant, alien shore, where the sky is crimson and the water is salty with tears. Whereas Parklife‘s closer was regimented into a 4/4 beat, here, the band favour a looser-limbed waltz, allowing greater space between the sounds. Albarn’s lyrical chops were never in any doubt: here, on 13, the band’s music is allowed to take on freer expressions and more wide-reaching influences, to dazzling effect. As “Optigan 1″‘s lonely carousel-ride music box shuffle winds away into oblivion, we are left with the faint echo of an album that perfectly captures the band’s sentiments: sorrow, emotional turmoil, and the desire to push the boundaries of pop music just as much as The Beatles did several decades previously.
When I first heard 13, I thought I was hearing Blur’s very own Kid A, but released to an uninterested world a year earlier. To this day, I still think that’s an image worth thinking about. Sprung upon the public at a time when we were more interested in the private lives of the Spice Girls than the immersive musical statement that is the album, 13 was destined to fade quickly from the charts and enter only in the conversations of critics. But to continue to ignore it would be to do it a great disservice, for in amidst the unfamiliar experimentation and bizarre sonic assaults, there is an absolute pot of gold full of richly rewarding, emotionally complex songs that anyone can enjoy.
In what way is it a better album than Parklife? Purely for the reason that here, Blur stopped writing about the world outside, and started telling us about themselves. Incredibly, far beyond the witty social commentary of their earlier works, hearing a man confess his bleak state of mind is wonderfully enriching, more so than hearing about a civil servant-cum-golfing fanatic.