Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 41)
is about falling through floor after floor of misery, a slow morphine drip decline set to tape. But what makes 13
such an emphatic album is the way it sucks all of the drama out of depression. Those of us that have been there, falling and falling, know that the worst part is the vast expanse of nothing. Endless miles of it, stretching out beyond the horizon until you cant remember what “normal” was like. Depression isn’t dramatic, drama comes from clearly defined problems and depression doesn’t allow you to wrap your hands around what’s the matter. 13
, along with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures
and Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers
, is as unglamorous a portrait of shivering depression as you’re likely to find.
And it starts with depression’s cruelest trick, the sound of the sun breaking through the clouds. “Tender”’s coxswain percussion and Graham Coxon’s meek but muscular guitar lines puffing their way up through the haze. “Love’s the greatest thing,” sings Damon, maybe a little too deeply, “That we have.” The gospel choir is cheering hosannah and Coxon croons his immortal “Oh my baby, oh my, oh why.” It pulls, pushes, and prays for nearly 8 wonderful minutes. But in its closing seconds, as the song fades to a close, the choir’s “Heal me” starts sounding like “Kill me”.
Then “Bugman” starts. And whatever peace you had coming into this gets sandblasted into oblivion. A massive, pummeling riff roars out of the dark. Damon isn’t making sense anymore. “I got no sense of existence/I know the nodding dogs”, he croaks, “I go out in the city/I stay away from the dogs.” The guitar solo is the sound of an overdriven vacuum; it ends with a fully strung out Damon wailing, “Space is the place!” The End. Goodbye.
What Blur do on 13
better than any other band I’ve ever heard is they burn away every single signifier that made Blur Blur up until their self titled while maintaining every ounce of their pop smarts. “Coffee & TV”, easily the most accessable song here, makes severe alienation sound comfortable, like a sofa from the 70’s and a TV that only plays stock footage on mute. And a couple Prozac of course. The fearsome “Swamp Song” wisps open with hushed breaths and woozy guitar before Dave Rowntree starts pounding a mighty Strum und Drang on his kit. When Albarn roars “Stick it in my veins!
” he sounds like he’s pulling sandpaper out of his throat. “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” is a fairly straightforward rock’n’rollah until Daffy Duck shows up to honk the chorus. “Battle” takes the widescreen slow-mo-explosion of Mezzanine
and lets that sh*t ride for 7 epic minutes.
All the while, Damon’s lyrics are making almost no sense. He’s painting impressionistically here, merely gesturing at feelings without coming right out and saying them. “I’m a country boy I got no soul, don’t sleep at night the world’s growing old,” he rambles on “Trailerpark”, “I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones.” Graham Coxon, meanwhile, is plugging his brain stem straight into the amplifier. He attacks the crushing riffs of “Swamp Song” and “Bugman” like he hates them, swapping his pick for a razor blade. On “1992” he hovers around the mix in a distant drone before taking the song to some glum astral plain for its conclusion.
As a whole, 13
is an epic exploration of an exhaustively boring state of being; too depressed to do anything, nothing to do anyway. But on “Caramel”, the walls come closing in. “I’ve gotta get over,” croaks Damon, “I’ve gotta get better”. It’s a desperate mantra, one that sounds like it’s barely leaking past his lips. “Where is the magic? I’ve gotta get better.” Around the halfway point, the song gets sucked back into its own IV drip before bursting out in a jazz breakdown (And I mean “breakdown” in the literal sense). The last 30 seconds are a mutant punk-funk rev-up, like everything here; it contributes to the atmosphere while being totally different than anything else on the album. 13
is filled with shards of thrown away piano lines, far away vocal overdubs, and just plain weird atmospheric touches. “Trimm Trabb”’s fiery dénouement is piled high with disembodied screams, whispering voices, and manically twirling pianos.
Finally, we hit bottom. “No Distance Left to Run”. It isn’t a happy ending by any means but it is stable ground. “It’s over. You don’t need to tell me,” sings Albarn with weary resolution. No more insane overdubs, no wildly veering song structures, no abstract lyrics, just solid concrete floor. It’s sparsely beautiful, just lightly brushed drums and the gentle thrum of bass holding everything in place. Like almost everything else on 13
, it’s also berift of melodrama. When Damon sings, “I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep” it’s devastating because he sounds like he actually means it. “I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life, I’ve got no distance left to run.”
A band’s longevity is determined by how much faith they have in their audience. Bands without faith play it safe for the duration of their career, lightly tweaking the formula that works as their fan base diminishes. Blur trusted it’s audience to follow them down a darker path, certainly we’re miles away from Parklife
now. This trust resulted in one of the most fully developed discographies in music. 13
may represent the apex of Blur’s collective efforts, but it isn’t the finale. Blur had one statement to make.