Backspin: Blur, 13 (1999)

Much has been made of the musical and thematic similarities shared by Blur’s second, third, and fourth albums (Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape, respectively). All three records contained character sketches of life in John Major’s Britain, punctuated with music-hall flourishes and memorable choruses.

Like all good ideas, however, Blur’s Anglo-centric approach eventually ran out of steam. The band’s final three full-length records included more introspective lyrics and incorporated a far wider palate of sounds. We’re examining them in a three-part edition of our Backspin series, Backspin: Blur. Beginning with their self-titled 1997 LP on Tuesday, we pick up with 1999’s 13 today.

“That relationship absolutely crashed. It was a spectacularly sad end.”
Damon Albarn on his breakup with Justine Frischmann,
No Distance Left to Run (2010)

The death of a relationship may be a debilitating blow of fate, but it can also be the source of tremendous inspiration. The history of pop music is full of fantastic records inspired by breakups: Here My Dear, Blue, Blood on the Tracks, etc. And while a breakup can feel all-consuming, it is difficult to distill all those negative emotions into a single coherent statement. As a result, a lot of breakup albums are about 80% breakup and 20% other shit that was happening in the author’s life at the at the same time.

If Blur hinted at the cracks in Damon Albarn’s relationship with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann, 13 described their love’s painful demise. After nearly eight years together, Frischmann decided to end things in an effort to sort things out with her band, as well as her addiction to heroin. After the breakup, Albarn moved into a small flat where he wrote the majority of the album.

Change was in the air from day one. For starters, Stephen Street, who’d produced every Blur record since 1993’s Modern Life is Rubbish, was no longer behind the boards. Instead, it was William Orbit, fresh off Madonna’s Ray of Light, assisted by Ben Hillier (who would later work the band on Think Tank). The actual technical recording process for 13 was also quite different. Unlike Street, who sought to get the best take out of the band, Orbit left the tapes running at all times. As a result ,several songs were constructed from tiny snippets of lengthy and noisy jam sessions (e.g., “Battle”).

Blur were in a position to stretch out. Not wanting to waste all the ideas that were stockpiled, many songs have an untitled link track tacked on at the end. Perhaps feeling nostalgic, the group also dusted off some old ideas. “1992” is based around an unearthed demo tape from the Leisure era, while “Trailer Park” is a tune that was rejected from the South Park Chef Aid compilation.

Despite the flood of creativity, all was not well. The barely contained friction from the previous album’s sessions returned in a big way. In the 2010 documentary No Distance Left to Run, Dave Rowntree described things as being rather grim. “Things were starting to fall about between the four of us. It was quite a sad process making 13. People not turning up to the sessions. Turning up drunk. Being abusive and storming off…”

Substance abuse was at least a partial inspiration for some of the album (e.g., “stick it in my vein” from “Swamp Song” or “I’ve got to stop smoking” from “Caramel”). In a 2012 Guardian interview, Albarn obliquely referred to heroin’s influence on this period of the band’s history. Did he straight-up admit to taking the drug? Not really. Will we ever really know? Probably not. Is it important? Erm no; it’s his life.

Now, as much as 13 is the Damon Albarn depression show, Graham Coxon is on fire. “Coffee and TV” is a splendid piece of pop taken to the stratosphere by the bespectacled axe man’s thrilling solo. And his vibrato-twinged playing on the breakup masterpieces “Tender” and “No Distance Left to Run” flawlessly complements the pain in Albarn’s voice.

Given Coxon’s importance to Blur’s sound, especially on 13, it’s difficult to think of the group functioning without him. And yet, that’s exactly what Damon, Alex, and Dave did on the following album.

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