Today my chum Tim and I are going to brave Wellington's Very Big ANZAC Parade and venture out to one of Wellington's last remaining inner-city music shops to buy The Magic Whip, Blur's surprising new album (as in: "surprise! A new album!") I've juggled the idea for a few years as to how to approach Blur's discography, and as I've not long finished Manic Street Preachers', and the memory of the marathon that was Iron Maiden's discography is still fresh. Blur's set of seven studio albums to date is by comparison much more manageable, but for some reason I find the idea of sallying forth and covering another band - this band in particular, just a bit too hard. I've been a Blur fan for twenty years now (bloody hell. Seriously - Bloody Hell!), have read countless magazine articles, a Britpop biography and the bassist's autobiography, watched a few docos and their own very very good film story - and still I feel like I don't know them very well.
So the following is a potted mixed-up history of me and Blur via the means of a countdown of their albums according to me. If you've read this far, thangyewverymuch and enjoy:
The Great Escape (1995) Post-Parklife and the beginning of the comedown troika that reinvents the band and almost destroys it. Damon Albarn reduces his beloved Britain to shallow caricatures with caustic songs like 'Entertain Me', 'Stereotypes' and 'Mr Robinson's Quango'. There's so much more like that, but best to dwell on the successes: 'The Universal' and 'Yuko and Hiro' save this, really. Otherwise it's a spiteful, joyless stomping on Nineties Britain with no alternative offered. And then Oasis won the Britpop war to nobody's surprise.
Leisure (1991) The debut album, unsurprisingly pulling in a lot of directions, many of them baggy and not a little saggy. Very few bands indeed arrive fully-formed, and while this is fun, this is also Blur the followers and not the leaders.
The singles 'There's No Other Way' and 'She's So High' are harmless and non-threatening in such a way that it's interesting to note how much an impression non-single track 'Sing' made, earning it a key place in the Trainspotting album years later.
Think Tank – complicated and sad. If 13 is the break up album over Justine Frischmann, then Think Tank details the entropic effects of Graham Coxon's departure. There are some really good songs on this: 'Out of Time', 'Sad Song', 'Gene by Gene' and the sorrowful 'Battery in Your Leg', but Think Tank, being one foot in Albarn's politics and World Music dabblings, and one foot in Blur's heritage (including - inevitably- Gorillaz) is a discomforting body of work, and perhaps all the more interesting for it.
Blur (1997) - the rescue attempt. If I'm honest, I find Think Tank gets more of an outing on my stereo, but this nudges it because there’s more Coxon here. Also, 'Beetlebum', one of their best songs (particularly the instrumental coda) 'On Your Own', and 'Song 2' - the little song that broke the US when the band had long-ceased trying.
13 (1999) – The millennium approaches, the band is hardly speaking, things fall apart, and William Orbit is around (with Stephen Street again) to literally pick
up the pieces aided and abetted by ProTools. The result is never boring - from a spiritual 'Tender' opening, to some fuzzy, wiggish Bowie mugging ('Bugman') then to the some very trippy head music ('Battle', 'Caramel') the should-have-been-a-single culminating in a weary, weepy 'No Distance left to Run'. I love the flavours of 13, but it's not the sound of a band at its peak or in the midst of joy.
Modern Life is Rubbish (1993) – near-perfect,with the band firing on all cylinders distilling Kinks, Who, Small Faces and coming up with the true beginnings of their most recognisable sound, and kicking off their 'Life' trilogy. There's some great experimentation here: 'Oily Water' almost matches the live version from the Hyde Park reunion.
although the oom-pah shouting in 'Sunday Sunday' gets a bit much, and possibly the album is one song too long.
That said, it's indispensible.
(1994) – Where pretty much everything falls into place. The battle of Britpop doesn’t exist, and the zeitgeist is wholly grappled and pinned down. From the bouncing, bassy sun-drenched onlooking of 'Girls and Boys' to the wonderful shipping forecast lyrical closer, it’s an album that can be listened to end to end, and is still the band’s grandest sweep of British life in the mid-Nineties. For me it was a slow grower, and the first and still the most significant album of theirs I bought. The Clash may have formed my in-head soundtrack to a 2000 landing in London, but it was 'This is a Low' which fed the return home, and a flight over the northern coastlines of the British Isles.
And so to The Magic Whip? We'll see...