For the last week or two I’ve been trading emails with Music Insanity, fellow blogger of all things sonically wonderful – and nowhere near as drunk or misanthropic as me. The subject: Blur, the interest: perception. Because we arrive at the subject from different angles: fan vs hesitant, Canadian vs British, vinyl fetishist vs vinyl fetishist – you get the idea (that’s his photograph, by the way – not sure I could let The Great Escape in the house, whilst I’m not to be trusted with carpet). I was interested in which views (if any) would be shared, and if there was a tipping point where we’d disagree. Music Insanity kicked it all of by enquiring after my favourite Blur LP…
LGM: A favourite Blur album – not as straightforward a question as it initially appears. Actually it is straightforward – the answer is obviously and irrevocably 13 – but that’s not the point. Two things that strike me about the Blur back catalogue; the stylistic journey is a wide one, and their albums veer wildly in terms of coherence. In other words, I’d argue that the LPs that work the best are those with a central theme underpinning the narrative; Modern Life Is Rubbish (which I described in a previous post as “a sub-Kinksian proposition, loaded with suburban detail and wistfully spiky portraits of pre-millennial ennui”), and 13, with its cold, moody and involved atmosphere. Their middle era, especially Parklife and The Great Escape, I struggle with – some great tracks that operate without a linking framework, instead positioned against songs that really haven’t aged well (if they ever worked in the first place). I’d suggest that you’re more of a fan than me – I’m tempted to buy the vinyl reissue of my favourite Blur album, but I certainly wouldn’t buy the box set – do you think that’s a fair assessment?
MI: Yes. I would say that’s fair given that I have already purchased the vinyl box set.
I’ve been a fan since Leisure but I would agree that many of their albums don’t work as cohesive units, besides the albums that you mentioned. However, I would have to disagree with your assessment of Parklife. Putting it on the same scale as The Great Escape is rather harsh and I would put it closer in aesthetic to Modern Life, albeit it is a little more all over the place. Leisure couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a shoegaze or a dream pop record. Modern Life seemed to find the band with all pistons firing, all in the name of capturing British life. Parklife seems to me to be almost the sloppy seconds of Modern Life, with the band returning to the same stomping ground. I believe I read somewhere long ago that the band considered these two, along with Great Escape, a trilogy of sorts. However, I think the creative well had run a bit dry by the time Albarn and crew got to Great Escape (it didn’t seem to hurt album sales any though). Blur was the bands flirtation with American music (specifically lo-fi) and American culture. 13 was the art rock album. Think Tank is the album I am least familiar with but I think it is often overlooked; unfortunate because whenever I sit down to listen to it, I always have an enjoyable experience. This all being said, even my least favourite of their albums have some tracks that I still love to listen to. Albarn has a knack for writing good pop songs and it seems to me that everything he touches turns to gold. Just look at his work with Gorillaz and to a lesser extent, The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
LGM: A thematic link between Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife? Certainly difficult to argue against, although perhaps the latter’s scope was deliberately louder, wider, brasher, and on occasion even more cartoon-like. Does it take a more nuanced set of hands to sculpt something louder, wider, brasher, and more cartoon-like? Certain bands do it; I’m not sure that Blur ever have. Or perhaps I’m being just a little harsh and cynical – Parklife does contains three of four heart-swooning tracks. But in the context of album – a concept for good or ill I measure my waking hours in – LP #3 feels swamped and inelegant.
(And as for The Great Escape – alas I can’t even listen to it).
I like your analysis of nationality behind the back-cat; Blur as the their American rock album, Modern Life as British. I’m writing this from Scotland, so would suggest that the vogue behind their earlier periods is very much English rather than British (an important distinction from this end that probably doesn’t carry across the Atlantic – and why would it?). And 13 as the art-rock album – yeah, I’ll sign up to that. The record that works for you?
MI: The album that works for me… I often have a hard time picking between the first three albums but often fall back on Parklife, given the “time and place” thing. The album just seemed to click for me back in 1994 and still resonates with me today, whereas The Great Escape doesn’t at all. I would guess that there may have been a bit of over-saturation in the case of Parklife in England but here in Canada, the album only received meagre airplay on the radio and video channels (and only ‘Girls & Boys’, which, incidentally, is my least favourite song on the record). I might have had a different experience with it had I heard it every time I turned on the radio or TV.
When I look at my favourite albums, they typically are the ones where I don’t find the urge to skip any tracks. Modern Life and Parklife fit this bill the best for me, with Leisure not far behind. The self-titled record lags a bit near the end.
13 has some of my favourite tracks on it but for everyone that I love, there is one that I just can’t listen to. For instance, ‘Bugman’ drives me insane. I feel that, after ridiculous success of ‘Song 2’, the boys wanted to rid themselves of their new “jock” fan-base and went a bit over the top in the experimentation. I love ‘No Distance Left To Run’, but this is because I don’t let the cynic in me ruin the song for me.
(Tangent: I don’t know what the tour was like there in England but in North America but the band chose to play small venues here in North America in support of 13, a big difference from the mid-size stadium shows for Blur. I tried to get tickets for the Toronto show and it sold out in 2 minutes. Given that they chose to play 13 from beginning to end at these shows, I would wager many who did get tickets were disappointed.)
What do you think of the two new tracks they released earlier this year? And I’m curious to know which of their tracks you still find “heart-swooning”. I love that term. It aptly describes how I feel about music in general.
LGM: Ah, the time and place thing. It’s powerful stuff, isn’t it? Shaping our understanding of recorded sound, injecting a highly vibrant form of nostalgia into our listening habits. Because that’s what music does; the instant transportation to significant moments. I wouldn’t argue that this process necessarily blindfolds our critical faculties; if anything, it’s probably the opposite, layering this appreciation of this track or that album with waves of urgency. It’s possibly why the two Blur tracks revealed this past summer fail to trigger any waves of the excitement with this listener. I’d probably file Think Tank under that label too (because I’m nothing if not snobbish towards my music, quick to dismiss).
I see where you’re coming from when you say that 13 is perhaps a record that tries too hard to repel the fan-base that considers the ultimate Blur track to be called “Woo-hoo”, (because they first heard it played over the PA during a Canadiens vs Maple Leafs game, or something similar, depending upon your sport of choice). I always begin 13 with ‘Bugman’ for the simple reason that opener ‘Tender’ feels awkward – not helped by the fact that I heard a karaoke version being blared from the premises of a dodgy bar, which instantly gave me the fear. It’s the rest of the album that provides the swoons – the first since Parklife‘s two highlights, ‘To The End’ and ‘This Is A Low’. Have this band ever hit upon a richer seam than ‘Caramel’? I’d argue not…
It’s probably time to finish this up, considering that this is for public consumption and folks on the internet struggle with anything over 100 words in length (particularly if there isn’t a photo of a kitten included). So – where do you think Blur stand in the list of important bands?
MI: I actually really like ‘Tender’ but I understand how sometimes hearing a song in the wrong place can ruin a song for you. This is the same with me and Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer’ after I heard it 3 times in one night long ago while drinking at a “townie tavern” (similarly dodgy) in my small home town (why I was there long enough to hear it 3 times is another story).
I guess it goes without saying that Blur is important to me but to music as a whole? I think the jury is still out. I have this argument often with a good friend about whether The Charlatans will be forgotten in 10 years or not. I think both bands are still too close to our current collective music consciousness (did that sound too highbrow) to know for sure. Ten years ago, I didn’t think bands like Chapterhouse and Ride would be remembered by anyone except for those of us left holding the torches but here we are with every other “nu-gaze” (where do these terms come from?) band referencing them as influences. I’d like to think they were one of the more important bands of the 1990s but again, they went largely unnoticed by North America and are probably considered one hit wonders in many circles (but so is The Verve for that matter). However, some of the bands we consider the most important are ones that the buying public ignored at the time but influence those that did listen, went out and formed bands. So perhaps I’ll leave you with this hopeful thought: While trawling the Internet five or six years, I came across a YouTube video of a live performance where Ben Gibbard (lead singer of Death Cab for Cutie) was joined on stage by Colin Meloy (lead singer of The Decemberists) and they performed a cover of Blur’s “End of a century”, not one of their more popular songs here in North America. Both of their bands originated on the Northwest coast of the United States (you can’t get that much further from England) and both are now quite popular in the indie rock muso-sphere.
Blur / Bugman