BLUR'S VISION Whoo-hoo! Damon Albarn and his mates are back, and this time they're delving into the genre that dares not speak its name. Prog-rock anyone?
by Rob Tannenbaum
Last year, Damon Albarn turned 30. He was so miserable he hardly noticed. But he does recall getting one gift. "A travel bag, from Justine," he says with the short hard laugh of someone who's not entirely amused. "I think she was telling me to pack my bags."
The end of his eight-year relationship with Justine Frishmann, of the neo- new-wave band Elastica, brought Blur's singer to another milestone:his very first broken heart. Like many sensitive souls before him, Albarn relieved his agony by writing songs about it. Blur's new album 13, dives into the deep pit of lovers' woe, recalling breakup tragedies like Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, though its bitterness owes more to Marvin Gaye's poisonous Here, My Dear. With its images of bugs and illness, and quivering hooks warped by distortion, the album simulates a fevered night in a sick ward.
Blur became known in the mid-'90s for writing catchy but caustic pop tunes about British middle-class suburbia. But their last album, made under the sway of American indie rock, included the rampaging "Song 2" - its "Whoo- HOO" refrain in now heard in ads for Pentium microchips - a distillation of the Pixies' barbed-wire pop. Indeed, Blur's greatness lies in their ability to sniff out current trends and infuse them with a grand pop spark. On 13, they've wrapped themselves in this season's must-have accesory: progessive rock.
"There are big bits of [the late-'60s progressive-rock band] Gong on this album," Albarn admits one night in his Manhattan hotel room, as he pours himself the first of a few vodkas. Guitarist Graham Coxon and bassist Alex James, both 30, nod in agreement, and open beers. (Drummer Dave Rowntree, 34, is in England finishing his pilot's training.) James offers the following objection to the founding prog bands: "They had bad hair." But Albarn and the band savor the perverse sprawl of their prog-pop. "Tender," their new single, is "8 minutes 40, and it sounds like a hymn," James declares proudly.
With its instrumental suites and cold textures, 13 also sounds like OK Computer by Radiohead, whom Coxon calls "the only band we have any loose connection with." It's a bit of a sore spot for them: When Blur see OK Computer hailed as a masterpiece, they feel unjustly dismissed as lightweights. "It's really crass to say," Albarn interjects, "but if [Radiohead singer] Thom Yorke looked like me, and I looked like Thom Yorke, everyone would have a different perspective."
Quietly, Coxon asks him, "Do you think some people are cursed with good looks?"
"Yes," Albarn answers quickly. "It's difficult to be taken seriously when you're a pretty boy."
The members of Blur know their serious aspirations sometimes get obscured by their ladishness. Radiohead, James, hasn't been "steeped in alcohol as we have. We've done a lot of ridiculous things." Adds Albarn, "Oh, we've done some ludicrous things."
He's thinking of their very public media feud with Oasis, whome Albarn once called "the Spice Girls on drugs". When Blur began, Coxon says in his intense whisper, "being in a group meant going to every party, and being stupid." The guitarist is the noise advocate in the band, while James, a self-described "disco bunny" with a fobby rock-star haircut, embodies the band's crass spirit. "When I write songs," he says, "it's some kind of primal calling for a mate. Like a whale noise. I mean, I was in a band, way before I had a guitar." As a teen, he confesses, he would play Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" for girls and clain it was his band's song.
Since producer William Orbit also worked on Madonna's Ray of Light, Blur got a chance to impress the Material Girl in the studio. "She's a very sexy woman," says Albarn, his pinup-blue eyes flashing. "And I told her so." Proudly, they recall her comment about their album: "Turn it up" - a nice compliment, since Madonna is famous for having great ears. "And great tits," exclaims James, as his mates roll their eyes and laugh - partly with him and partly at him.
When Damon Albarn was born in 1968, his father, Keith, was in the middle of London's psychedelic rock scene, designing light shows for Soft Machine, the band that sent jazz-rock into orbit. A few years later, Keith moved to suburban Essex, where he became an art professor and author. Damon grew up in a converted bakery. His mom was a stage designer, and his dad built furniture in their house. After Damon dropped out of drama school, he started Blur in London with childhood friend Graham Coxon, who was in art school at the time. Because of his bohemian upbringing, Damon felt a kinship with arty band like Wire.
Now, he's disillusioned. He had wanted Blur to be a amalgam of opposites- high and low, serious and ludicrous, devoted to cool haircuts but also to experimentation. Instead, "we got hit over the head for being too clever. The music business doesn't like smart-asses."
In England, where the tabloids follow Albarn's love life with nearly as much intensity as American papers cover Clinton's, The Sun recently offered a reward for the name of his new girlfriend, a painter. "I've got a price on my head," Albarn says with a grimace, "like a criminal".
The night after our first interview, Albarn is in his hotel room, eating a salad with his fingers (he doesn't like cutlery), with the moody score to Last Tango in Paris on the CD player. From his crinkled para- chute pants to his uncombed hair, he's a human wrinkle, but no less gor- geous or charming for his lack of caring. A tattoo reading "Mum" is visible on his thin left shoulder.
If you live in London and are worth knowing - artist, musician, actor - Albarn knows you. He's an art collector, an impish flirt, a bon viant with a Cockney accent. (He casually mentions his pal Helena Christensen, with just enough of a smile to leave you wondering.) Albarn won't specify why he and Frischmann broke up. But the lyrics on 13 seem to place the blame firmly on her, depicting her in almost sickly terms as a "ghost...waiting for the night to come." "When you're coming down, think of me," he sings on "No Distance Left to Run." He recognizes that 13 will have a "quite devastating" effect on her, and expects it will end their friendship. "How can you be friends with someone who has done that to you?" he says. "Or when you've done that to them."
In a music store near his SoHo hotel, Albarn hovers lovingly over a Celeste Mustel, a 1930s keyboard priced at $5,000. He's shopping for some vintage analogue synths, anything that might add more odd sounds to his arsenal. An earnest-looking clerk starts to describe the keyboards circuitry, but Albarn interupts and asks him to amplify a kazoo. "Are you serious?" the confused clerk asks. Albarn spots a $900 Roland Jupiter 4, a classic synth, makes some wild noises on it, and quickly decides to buy it. Then he sees a $269 Hohner string keyboard, a '70s relic used to simulate symphonic sounds. As he fingers it, a low hum burbles up, like a disagreeable orchestra. "That's very prog," Albarn says with a smile, then hands the clerk a credit card.