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CMJ NEW MUSIC MONTHLY APRIL '99

Unchained Melody~

Story: Tom Lanham~
Contributer: Wicked~

Wrap around sunglasses masking his bleary scarlet eyes, a visibly hung-over Damon Albarn shuffles into the lobby of his chi chi New York hotel at 10 a.m. and downs the first glass of Orange Juice he can get his trembling hands on. Then another. And then he switches to steamy cups of coffee. Each opening of the establishment’s huge drawbridge of a front door sends another gust of brisk winter air blasting towards him; even in his sweater, puffy parka and regulation army fatigues, the man shivers like an igloo-tied whippet. Not much he can do about-folks keep checking in, checking out. But 48 hours earlier, conditions for one of Britain’s pop darlings were worse. Much, much worse.

Liquor wasn’t involved. And there were no espresso machines handy to fend off frost bite. Two days ago, Albarn-tabloid hounded frontman for UK chart darlings Blur-was just another adventurer, conquering a monolithic blue-hued glacier in the unforgiving wilds of Iceland. Just a speck on the jagged horizon when the winds-literally the worst the North Atlantic had experienced in a century-came storming across the terrain. “It was so cold that I really felt physically sick,” relates Albarn, after repairing to a well heated alcove near the front desk. “I mean bone chilling cold. And because there were such bad gales, all the snow had turned into big hard waves.” He reaches for the coffee cup, warming his hands to drive away the frigid memory. “ummm, it wasn’t exactly Orange County.”

Still, the London based Albarn maintains a permanent part-time residence in Reykjavik. He also maintains a proprietary interest in Kaffibarinn, one of the city’s hottest restaurant/nightclubs. He’s participated in the country’s rugged, and potentially lethal, outdoorsy pursuits: snowmobiling across half frozen fjords and over mountains land-mined with bottomless crevasses; four wheeling up 45-degree glacial slopes for a picnic at the summit; diving head first into open-air geyser heated pools in the dead of winter, when some 20-odd hours of darkness blanket the nation daily. But Albarn isn’t passing through a dilettante trip, as some carpetbagging spiritual/cultural tourist. “Iceland is part of my soul.” he swears. Half Scandinavian on his mother’s side, he terms his interest in the Northern lands a “roots thing” that began several years ago, “When I had a recurring dream about a beach with black sand. And I saw a picture of Iceland, it was a beach with black sand. So it was obviously an ongoing subconscious dialogue, and I reconciled it by going there and buying a house and making peace with this part of my subconscious.”

In 1996, as his quartet was mapping the strange sonic territory of it’s fifth album Blur, Albarn followed his dream and visited Iceland for the first time. Now, he smiles contentedly when talking of his adopted country. “They all treat me like one of their own these days, even though I’ve been incredibly negligent about learning the language. I love the place, love the people and I’m not looking for a wife or anything. And actually when I first went there I think that’s what they thought I was all about. But I like the landscape, and the land and the nature are very captivating and I feel very at peace there. I write most of my lyrics there, I sing all of my songs there.” For several minutes he enthuses over some of his favorite Icelandic sights-a volcano-abutting glacier topped by two giant ice formations in the shape of devil’s horns. A witch who lives down the road, beneath the protection of a waterfall. “Ghosts, little people, spirits-it’s all flying around,” he whispers. “It’s the old religion. There’s a bit of in my mother, so I was brought up more with that than Christianity. And I mean the old religion- feeling the nature, understanding that just because something isn’t there in front of you doesn’t mean is isn’t there.”

Albarn lowers his defenses shades for a minute, blinks his swollen mole-like eyes through long, unkempt auburn bangs. He seems to be wondering, “Am I getting this through? Is my point clear enough?” If not, one listen to 13-Blur’s new William Orbit produced experiment (Virgin)- should clarify matters. If the grinding indie rock-influenced Blur- whose grungy, “Woo-hoo”-ing “Song 2” not only broke the group in America, but wormed it’s way into film soundtracks and even an Intel TV commercial-saw Albarn and company crawling out on a primal rock limb after four disks’ worth of Brit-pop, 13 is the sound of them sawing. Sawing so furiously at that limb, Blur-as a concept, as music, as people-is about to drop one helluva creative free-fall. “I really got myself caught up in some heavy shit in England, you know, real bad shit,” Albarn confides, sliding low into his seat, kicking off his shoes and propping his feet on the marble table. “And I had to get away. So I got away, I got that distance, and I think this record gives us the opportunity to go where we want and be who we are, to go wherever.” He pauses, pondering the right word. “Unchained. Unchained is a very good term for it.”

Blur guitarist Graham Coxon- a spindly, elastic limbed chap who appears lost inside his marshmallowy anorak- stumbles downstairs a few moments after Albarn. He softly scratches his nap-shaven head, trying to shake his own hellish hangover, the first he’s suffered in months. Bassist Alex James is so hammered he’s still upstairs, can’t drag himself out of bed. Coxon doesn’t like Iceland, he says, thinks it’s too wild, too lawless. “Some psycho will blow your head off for no reason at all, just because he’s pissed,” he declares, before a tender amendment: “Well, I get the idea, ya know?” His girlfriend is Swedish; he prefers Sweden. Historically, he’s seem his position in Blur as something of a tug-of-war: No matter how hard he prods the material in a dissonant direction, he sighs, “Damon’s songs usually turn into chart-friendly things, and whatever I do will never make any difference.” But Coxon agrees with the “unchained” metaphor. Regular verse-bridge-chorus structure-the kind that shackled Blur for two of it’s most popular overseas efforts, the Brit-pop flagships Parklife and The Great Escape- felt to him “like imprisonment. When you’re working within pop music, you can’t really let yourself go, it’s just too straight and narrow. And I’ve gotten really bored of things being so limited.”

“Limited” is not a word that readily applies to Blur’s mold-shattering 13. Albarn had rocketed to fame via hits like “Stereotypes” and ‘95’s “Country House” (the release date of which he cleverly rescheduled to coincide with-and then defeat- arch-rival Oasis’s “Roll With It” at the very apex of Brit pop mania). He sang these hum-along, music hallish ditties in an exaggerated Cockney accent that simultaneously spoofed and coddled the English working class. But 13 features less irony, more heart-on-sleeve honesty, as in the seven minute opening ballad “Tender”. It starts tentatively, as on a tiny microcassette recorded guitar line from Coxon that’s pure backwoods American twang, then mortars its musical bricks into an imposing, Gospel choired wall that echoes Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” as much as it does vintage Johnny Cash. And Albarn’s walking-wounded ruminations (he recently ended what overseas music circles referred to as a poster-perfect romance with Elastica’s Justine Frichmann) are delivered in his natural voice, without poncey affectation: “Tender is the touch of someone that you love too much...Lord I need to find someone who can heal my mind.” It finishes in a pep talk flourish: “Come on, come on/Get through it...Love’s the greatest thing that we have.”

And, aside from another relationship tearjerker, “No Distance Left To Run,” that’s about as linear as the record gets. No sooner have the gentle tones of “Tender” faded than “Bugman” bulldozes in, on a scratchy, squealing head of Coxon guitar steam, with a vocodor muffled Albarn woofing in tandem. (“I love the idea of using and twisting clichés, like the hammering-on-silly-metal solo in the middle of that song,” Coxon sneers wickedly.) A troika of atonal anomalies bisects the disc- “1992,” “Battle” and a punky send up/salute to the corporate parent of the band’s UK label Food, “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” (Quips Albarn, “It was like, ‘Can we get away with singing this song and [EMI] understanding why we’re singing it?’ And if we can, and they do, then it’ll be a great year.”) Three numbers that resonate like dream sequences flesh out the second half- the lounge music from hell “Trailerpark,” a surreal anti-pop pastiche called “Caramel,” and “Trimm Trabb,” which according to Albarn, is “the very last of my sort of ambiguous songs. I think it sounds like U2, like something off Atchung Baby.”

But 13 does not make itself apparent to the listener the first time though. Like all pivotal works, it demands scrutiny, thought, consideration. And don’t get caught up in it’s emotional eddies, Albarn warns. “I mean, I haven’t lost faith in love or anything, but ‘Tender’ and ‘No Distance’ are pretty succinct, and they’re exactly how I feel. It’s easy enough for me to see Justine-the songs say that-but I’d rather just be alone. It was very, very, slow, agonizing degrees of separation for us. But finally, thank God, both of us just realized, ‘Enough already.’ It was a battle of wills.” Since the separation, the singer has been linked to All Saints’ Shaznay Lewis (“If I was more of a man, I’d take her for a wife,” he deadpans) and a mystery girl who the British tabloids are offering cash rewards to discover. Albarn shrugs, rolls his eyes. “I have no private life,” he moans, as yet another cute female hotel employee-the fifth this morning- waves to him as she sashays past. Going into 13, he adds, “I had nothing to lose. Nothing to lose but to sort of...marry music. I just decided that I love music so much, so why fucking beat around the bush. Just get married to it.”

Albarn is more than confident about 13-he’s almost defiant. In fact, the only time he shows any uneasiness at all is at the mention of “Bug Man,” whose paranoid, scattered imagery feels as brain-fried as Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Well, the Bug Man is...out there...in the city,” the Blur mouthpiece falters. “Uh...but let’s not talk about drugs on this record, because...” Because why? “Because it’s so blatantly a drug record. All those fucking bleeps and echoes, man? You don’t do that normally. But I didn’t do any of those. I just sat around and listened to people doing them. In my head.” But isn’t Albarn fairly anti-drug? He nods. “I am anti-drugs. I always have been, always will be.” So what about the substance in question? He lowers his shades again, scans the lobby to make sure no one’s within earshot. “Marijuana,” he drawls. So 13 is a pot album? Albarn giggles with impish delight. “Oh, yeah! Absolutely!”

Coxon, Albarn and James all recently turned 30. Drummer Dave Rountree-who’s remained in London with his wife- is five years their senior. This year marks the outfits tenth anniversary. Following in Albarn’s adventurous footsteps, Blur’s other members have doggedly pursued outside interests: Rowntree is involved in computer animation. James does double duty in the hard-drinking novelty act Fat Les, and Coxon owns his own label, Transcopic, which issued his first solo foray last year, The Sky’s Too High.

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