Backspin: Blur, S/T (1997)

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 examine them in a three-part edition of our Backspin series, Backspin: Blur, beginning with their self-titled album.

Blur’s self-titled 1997 album was the sound of a band hitting the reset button. The commercial success of 1995’s The Great Escape and its notorious lead-off single “Country House” proved to be a troubling influence on the group. Singer Damon Albarn found himself frustrated both by the lack of privacy, as well as mounting problems in his relationship with Justine Frischmann. Guitarist Graham Coxon was openly questioning the band’s musical direction and drinking heavily to self-medicate. Drummer Dave Rowntree, ever the quiet one, was suffering through a difficult divorce. Only bassist Alex James seemed to be hanging in there; he was well into a period where he allegedly spent £1 million on champagne and cocaine.

The band was regularly coming to blows and was allegedly on the verge of splitting at the beginning of 1996. It could’ve ended in tears. Thank fuck it didn’t.

In an attempt to gain some perspective (and escape the paparazzi), Albarn ventured to Iceland and set up shop in the capital, Reykjavik. There he surrounded himself with a small entourage and began to rethink his approach to life and creativity. Before he had been driven by an intense competitive streak, whereas now he was searching for something more substantive. Alex James would accompany Albarn on later expeditions to the land of Bjork.

In an interview for John Harris’ The Last Party: Britpop, Blair and the Demise of English Rock, James described Iceland as being “small, dynamic, outward-looking, exciting, resilient, poetic place…lot less of the bullshit you get in big cities like London.”

As touring and promotional appearances for The Great Escape drew to a close in mid-1996, the band prepared for recording, but not before dealing with some internal issues. Coxon still had a bitter taste in his mouth from the band’s rapid ascent to the top. Producer Stephen Street advised that everyone tread lightly around the guitarist’s feelings and managed to broker an unsteady peace. (It also helped that Coxon had temporarily given up drinking and was spending more time at home painting.) Recording sessions commenced in summer 1996 in London, with some overdubs done in a small studio in Iceland.

Gone are the oompah horns and lush string arrangements. The guitars are loud and up-front, the vocals are often distorted and the overall sound is much more lo-fi (though tasteful and well-balanced, thanks to Stephen Street). Indeed Blur does have a bit of a “dusted” sound in some places. Some of Blur’s younger converts may’ve found the album to be rather jarring. But longtime fans of the band would be relieved for the return of the noise. Much was made of the band’s love affair with Pavement, Sonic Youth, and other noisy American bands. I’d argue that Blur were simply re-examining a side of them that had been neglected. After all, this was a group that participated in the 1992 Rollercoaster Tour with My Bloody Valentine, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Dinosaur Jr.

On Blur, Albarn writes mostly in the first person, though he’s nowhere nearly as straightforward as he’d be on 13. Themes on this record include substance abuse (“Beetlebum,” Coxon’s tremulous “You’re So Great”) and social fatigue (“Death of a Party”). The album also has its fair share of nonsense lyrics, and Albarn probably didn’t want to be taken too seriously just yet. (Amazingly, one of these throwaway tunes, “Song 2,” went on to become a massive international hit.)

One thing that was certain, that the Ray Davies style character sketches that had defined Albarn’s previous work were long gone.

Blur was a bold and risky response to the personal and professional challenges that the group was facing during their commercial peak. Making a sequel to Parklife or The Great Escape probably would’ve destroyed the band. However, making a record that was too left-field would have alienated fans and shattered prospects of any future success.

Thankfully, because the tunes were still quality (and because people were beginning to tire of the shiny Britpop sound) the gamble actually paid off. “Beetlebum,” the lead-off single, debuted at #1 on the UK charts, and the band’s cult status in America was on the rise. And in my opinion, Blur sits far more comfortably with the forward-thinking albums of 1997 (e.g., OK Computer, Ladies and Gentlemen We’re Floating in Space, and Urban Hymns) than it does with Be Here Now, Hurricane #1, or Marchin’ Already.

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