Damon Albarn has checked in to Heartbreak Hotel and produced Blur's best album to date. Nigel Williamson had a foretaste
In one of those twists of fate, Alan McGee was in Stockholm attending a Sony conference on the day that Blur chose to stage the world launch of their new album, 13, in the Swedish capital.
As the head of Oasis's record label, Creation, McGee was one of the generals at the heart of the ludicrous battle of the bands waged at the zenith of Britpop a year or two ago between Britain's two premier groups. In fact, McGee was spotted neither at the Munchenbryggeriet, an old converted brewery where Blur played all but two of the songs from their new album to a music industry audience which had flown in from as far away as Brazil, Japan, and Australia; nor at the triumphant party afterwards, where Damon Albarn and what seemed like half of Sweden celebrated until dawn at the Spy Bar, Stockholm's coolest nightspot.
At the height of the battle of the bands, Oasis were deemed by most observers to have emerged comfortable winners, the coolest icons in the Cool Britannia pantheon. Listening to the new Blur album, it becomes apparent that what Oasis won was little more than a pointless skirmish over a plot of no man's land called Britpop that has since been left far behind by Albarn and company, who all the time had their sights set on more expansive horizons. If McGee had been at the Blur showcase, it would surely have reduced him to despair. The band's last album, Blur, had already indicated a move away from the breezy pop songs of Parklife, the only album of the mid-1990s to challenge the supremacy of Oasis. But if it wasn't already dead on its feet, Britpop is buried forever by 13, an audacious collection of songs that makes much of what Blur have done in the past sound one-dimensional. It is an emotionally charged, avant-garde panoramic soundscape that seizes the initiative and will set the musical agenda well into the new millennium. In short, 13 is the album of their lives, an awesome, futuristic piece of work that feels as if they have been in training for ten years simply to make this record.
Yet it was still a bold step to play almost in its entirety an album that was completely unfamiliar to most of those present and Albarn later paid tribute to the audience. "Thank you for being so appreciative. It's not easy listening to a dozen songs you've never heard before," he said.
In fact, it had not really been difficult at all because, despite a more experimental sound coaxed out of the band by producer William Orbit (who last year assisted Madonna's latest reinvention on Ray Of Light), the songs on 13 display an emotional commitment we have rarely heard from Blur before. There was a celebratory encore including Beetlebum, Popscene and Song 2 but by then we were already convinced that we had just witnessed the unveiling of the album of the year. The emotion comes from the fact that Albarn wrote many of the songs in the wake of his break-up with his long-time partner, Elastica's Justine Frischmann. And it shows. Albarn is no longer the wryly detached observer we are familiar with from songs such as Girls and Boys or Stereotype, and you can see why he describes 13 as Blur's "soul record" - not that he sounds like Otis Redding, simply that misery always did have the best tunes and here Albarn bares it all.
The pain is there for all to hear on Tender, the bittersweet eight-minute single complete with a gospel choir on which he sings "Tender is the touch of someone that you love too much/Tender is my heart for screwing up my life/Lord, I need to find someone who can heal my mind".
It is there on Trailerpark, on Trimm Trabb and on No Distance Left to Run, with which they closed the set in Stockholm. "Its over, there's no need to tell me/Hope you're with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep tonight/I want to kill myself for trying to stay in your life... When you see me, please turn your back and walk away/I don't want to see you," Albarn sings, and you can almost hear his heart breaking. Musically the album's dark atmospherics and spooky moods are closer in spirit to such contemporary sonic adventurers as Beck, Tortoise and Spiritualized than Britpop inspirations such as the Beatles and the Kinks. In 1995, with the Blur-Oasis war raging, Albarn predicted, tongue only partly in cheek, that by 1999 Blur would be the most important band in the world. When the planet at last gets the chance to hear 13 next month, who will argue that he was not right? 13 is released on March 15. The single, Tender, is released on Monday