By Kim Hughes
Only album sales will determine whether Blur are brilliant or if they've gone absolutely mad.
But with the release of their surreal, unhinged and sensational sixth disc, 13, there can be no doubt that England's pre-eminent pinups are utterly fearless. With massive earnings from their chart-topping, beer-plugging anthem Song 2 prudently invested and their status as tastemakers assured, it would have been easy for the quartet to continue charting quaint ups and downs of a middle-class British life as they have done, famously and wryly, for five albums. And who could blame them?
After all, singer Damon Albarn, bassist Alex James, guitarist Graham Coxon and drummer Dave Rowntree have endured enough crap over the years- a media-fuelled rivalry with Oasis; being singled out as saviours, then slayers, of Britpop; dodgy early management; dismal U.S. record deals; and some pretty violent hangovers- to have earned a creative repose. Instead, they've released a towering, square-peg record that casts them in a dramtically different light, doesn't nod to anything they've done before and will quite possibly alienate the breathless fans who've made them millionaire pop idols.
At the very least, 13 demonstates that Blur's flirtations with lo-fi, Pavement-damaged Yank rock and angular, highminded Kraut rock- revealed in 97 on their last album- were more serious than they at first appeared. Even so, nothing pointed to the complex overhaul that was in store. Coming at listeners from every angle except straight on, 13 gathers steam from its own sonic chaos, collapsing into fuzzed-out noise at some points, lurching around in a woozy, narcoleptic haze in others. More often than not, it scorches with a howling entanglement of jagged guitars, buried vocals, all manner of ranchy effects, a gospel choir, possibly a harpsicord and absolutely no regard for conventional song structure. Parklife it's not. That 13 is also a "divorce" album, arriving on the heels of Albarn's rumour-rich bust-up with lover Justine Frichmann of Elastica, makes it even more astonishing.
"I didn't get married, but if I'd been married, then yes, this would have been a divorce album," Albarn confirms matter-of-factly from his London studio, where he's working on music for a forthcoming Icelandic film.
"When I was younger, it never occurred to me that I'd get embroiled in such tacky things as divorce, but it's the reality of being nomadic and very much committed to something like music. You run the risk of not being able to hang on to things you need as a human being."
"The upside of that precarious existence is that sometimes you can harness those emotions and make really nice music. But you have to be prepared to deal with things that will both devastate and invigorate you."
Given such loaded circumstances, and Albarn's audibly world-weary perspective from his perch atop the pop heap, it would have been understandable if he'd pulled back and poured himself into a long-anticipated solo record. But Albarn poured himself into his band with venomous force.
Blur cut loose their longtime producer, Stephen Street, to work with techno-head William Orbit (Madonna's Ray Of Light)and set about creating a chasm between themselves and the ubiquitous "woo hoo" song that finally put them on the map in America but, to the band's dismay, became a rallying cry for tequila-soaked frat boys and thick-necked jocks. Presumably, a lucrative deal allowing Labatt to use the song in adverts helped assuage the honour of it all.
Still, as if 13 weren't ballsy enough, Blur have announced that they're no longer touring. In fact, their sold-out gig Tuesday at the Palais Royale is one of only a handful of global showcases being staged to launch the newrecord.
"We haven't stopped playing, but we have stopped touring. It's a sanity measure. Besides," Albarn jokes, "if the end of the world is coming, as these doomsayers say it is, I'd rather just concentrate on making music. I just can't bear the thought of me being stuck in a fucking miserable hotel somewhere."
"The thing about Song 2- although making something so perfect for MTV culture was kind of an accident- is that by doing it I no longer felt any sense of having to prove myself. That's all success in America is- coming up with a succession of sound bites."
"I could do it again, but what would be the point? It was like, 'OK, we know we can do that, so let's not do that ever again.'"
So, while fans and critics the world over scratch their noggins wondering where the hell Blur is headed- and if the album's title is some kind of sardonic in-joke on how they figured their musical revamp will pan out- the band happily plows forward with various side-projects.
Albarn makes music for films, as he did with composer Michael Nyman for the just-released Ravenous. James plays with the group Fat Les, Coxon paints, makes (so far) ghastly solo records, and runs a boutique imprint. And Rowntree's into aviation and computer animation.
Clearly, all that diversity fed the sprawling sound of 13. "I think 13 can be quite rewarding," Albarn says. "That's the sense I'm getting from people. You can take on certain emotions that it plays with and make them your own, which is a good thing. I love writing songs, but I think the older you get, the more selective you get with your subjects."
"When I was younger, I'd write songs about everything and anything. Now, I can only write about the things that are closer to my heart. I can't just write about getting up in the morning and it being a lovely day. I could write the music, but to actually sing it is harder and harder. By now, I know the things that work for me and the things that don't."
"That's why I like making music for film, because I can be faceless and I don't have to log on to the cult of personality. You can have a huge personality in a piece of music, but it's absorbed by the film itself. You can walk away unscathed. With a band record, you take on the weight of how it affects people."
Albarn reflects, "Albums like Parklife and The Great Escape were much more related to the abolishment of a home-grown culture and the whole Americanization of everything. On a surface level, those two records were about how Britain, at the end of the century, had lost its identity as a country." "It was definitely related to the millenium thing. Now I've sort of retreated from those big subjects because I've realized it's pointless to talk about something that's going to happen anyway."
That's a significant attitude shift for a man who, following the release of Blur's debut in 91, instructed NOW and anyone else who'd listen to stand back and watch as his band become the biggest fucking band on the planet, man. But Albarn now knows you should be careful what you wish.
Ex-girlfriends and his beloved Icelandic hideaway notwithstanding, it's clear Albarn's been irrevocably changed, good and bad, by his superstardom. As he slouches into his 30's, he longs for much more that the blind adulation of Blur fans. Being a commodity, it turns out, is something of adrag.
"I want to seamlessly make the move from being a pop star to being a composer, if possible," he says. "I don't know who else has done it. Not many, because people get so caught up in the image of what they are. Bands I really admire, like Can, for example, are comprised of people you wouldn't even know and yet they're among the most influential rock musicians of the century."
"That's am amazing position to be in. Music should stand purely on its own and shouldn't need to be complemented by a personality. I know it's hard to put music itself on the cover of a magazine, but it would be great if youcould."
"And the older I get, the more frustrating I find it."
Transcribed by: Amanda Walsh.