Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 27)
Here’s an idea. What if, on that fateful day in August 1995, instead of Blur winning the Battle of Britpop, Oasis’ “Roll With It” came in at number one while Blur’s “Country House” landed in the second spot. What if The Great Escape
had proven a far greater success than anyone could have predicted, selling 22 million copies worldwide, 4 of which were sold in America after “The Universal” wound up a freak hit, breaking the top 10 on the Billboard pop charts. Meanwhile, Oasis’ What’s the Story (Morning Glory)
had a strong initial showing but was epically overshadowed by Blur’s generation defining album.
Basically, what I’m getting at here is what if Blur had won?
The runaway success and global celebrity could have sent Damon Albarn’s ego into the stratosphere. His will ends up dominating the bands direction as Graham Coxon slips further into alcoholism as he watches his band spiral out of his control. With massive label pressure mounting to release another hit record, Blur’s follow up to The Great Escape
, lets call it Cheerio!
, is an even more inflated piece of Britpop. More horns, more strings, more characters, more hooks and choruses. Released only two years after The Great Escape
arrives on a tidal wave of hype and goes on to become the fastest selling album in British music history. Despite initial acclaim, Cheerio!
quickly reveals itself as an overinflated wreck, crammed with an oppressive level of cheer and songs that seem to stretch on forever, the album is widely regarded as the end of the Britpop era.
Now, what if, on the Oasis side of things, losing to Blur was exactly what the Gallagher brothers needed? Noel gets his runaway ego in check and Liam backs off the cocaine to preserve his voice. Instead of more 60’s grave robbing, Noel rethinks his narrow approach to songwriting while preserving his melodic instincts. Their follow up to What’s the Story (Morning Glory)
is titled simply, Oasis
, and is a marvel of stripped down arrangements and song craft. The success of Oasis
kicks off a brilliant second half of Oasis’ career, with each album that followed more adventurous.
But that isn’t what happened. Instead, in the wake of a very public loss to Oasis, Blur retreated. Damon absconded to Iceland while rumors of a breakup were common. In Febuary 1996 Blur were scheduled to appear on the Italian TV program the San Remo Festival. Damon Albarn and Dave Rowntree were the only ones who showed up; Graham and Alex were replaced by a cardboard cutout and a roadie respectively. Constant media attention was further driving a wedge between the band as their every move was reported in the tabloids.
The band was pulled back from the brink when Damon, with his formally huge ego having recived a nice puncture by the embarrassingly public loss to Oasis, spoke to a close friend and said, “Bollocks to the arenas, bollocks to being as big as Bon Jovi, it’s got to be about the music – about the art. I want to be taken seriously.”
Britpop had become a three ring circus and Blur wanted out. In retrospect, this was the second time Blur had the brilliant foresight to see the culture shift again. The first time was when they had made Modern Life is Rubbish
, predicting a changing tide away from the American nihilism of grunge. The second time they saw this coming was in 1997. Around the time shoegaze gave way to Britpop, Shoegaze was often mocked as “The scene that celebrates itself”. By the end of the decade, Britpop had ended up in that same place but in a much more annoying way. It was a constant assault of cheeriness and big choruses. You think you like the singles off What’s the Story (Morning Glory)
or Coming Up
? Try hearing them multiple times a day, everyday, everywhere you go. When they released the American indie inspired Blur
, they correctly predicted a cultural shift for the second time.
Blur albums set everything up in the opening 5 seconds. Where their previous three albums opened with crisp acousic guitar strums, chirpy dance synths, and bulldozing power chords, Blur
kicks things off with 16 lonely flicks of a muted guitar. “Beetlebum” sounds unlike anything Blur had made since Leisure
’s “Sing” all the way back in 1991. But it isn’t a total washout of their style though. Blur are far too good of popsmiths to go full avant garde, “Beetlebum” runs through quiet, tempered verses before building to a moon shot chorus that bursts like elegantly bummed out stars going supernova.
You might think you’re sick of “Song 2”. Let me assure you, you’re not. Somehow, after endless usage in commercials, montages, television programs, sports arenas, and alternative rock radio the song holds firm. It’s often pitched as a parody of grunge but I’m not hearing that. It sounds like Blur, after spending years rejecting grunge’s primordial stomp, going all out with sloppy grins on their faces. Plus, it packs a handful of great hooks into 2 minutes, hard to hate on anything that compact.
has garnered a reputation as a messy album. And yes, at first glance, this sounds like the work of a scrappy indie band bum rushing their local recording studio with their first budget. The string section on “Look Inside America” sounds like they were woke up at 3 AM to record their parts, “Country Sad Ballad Man” lazily floats the notion of country music before dropping it entirely to rock out the bridge, “Chinese Bombs” cant even be bothered to hit the one minute thirty second mark while closer “Essex Dogs” sprawls out for over 10 minutes. This is all an illusion. Blur does not do sloppy. Blur
simply presents the illusion of sloppiness, the gentlemen behind the curtain are in full control the entire time. Listen close enough and its clear that these guys worked hard to sound this loose. It’s a good illusion though and Blur
finds these guys more at ease than they had in years. They’re sighing here but it’s a sigh of relief.
At just under an hour, Blur
runs on a little long. For a long time, I considered it a glaring flaw and, indeed, this album would benefit from some more time in the editing room. But Blur
is a focused effort to shear off the bands bandwagon fanbase by releasing a record that buries its highlights, puts all the singles in the first half of the album and dares you to call it frontloaded. This is possibly Blur’s most rewarding album to really dedicate time towards figuring it out. Repeated listening uncovers highlights like Graham’s wounded lead vocal on the beautiful “You’re So Great”, the haunting way the chorus of “Death of a Party” lingers on the line “Go to another party/And hang myself” before issuing a redact, “Gently on the shelf”, or the UFO synth on the stellar “Strange News From Another Star”.
Like Modern Life is Rubbish
before it, Blur
was a success on their terms. It’s the sound of a band taking control of their direction and avoiding stagnation. Unlike Modern Life
was also a big commercial success, spawning the band’s second number one and producing 3 more top 20 hits. Even more amazing, it was the bands breakthrough in America. Though “Song 2” is actually the bands 3rd biggest hit in the states, it was their first to become omnipresent culturally. Blur
sold over 500 thousand copies in America and won them their first big foothold there. By 1997, the Blur vs. Oasis debate was over. There are only two types of people now; those that believe Blur to be the better band and those who are wrong.