Released on 10 May 1993 as a response to grunge, Modern Life Is Rubbish showcased Blur’s new aesthetic – an evocation of modern British life that formed the template for their next three albums. Behind a sleeve depicting a Mallard locomotive, Damon Albarn sang about being lost on the Westway, Sunday roasts and shopping in Portobello Road market.
Blur’s third album, Parklife (1994), was a perfect balance of brash pop (Girls and Boys, Tracy Jacks) and melancholic ballads (To The End). The album – released less than three weeks after Kurt Cobain‘s suicide – became Britpop‘s rallying cry.
Their fourth album The Great Escape (1995) paid homage to the English tradition of music-hall pop, as exemplified by The Kinks, Ian Dury and Madness, who all combined wry, observational lyrics about everyday life with a tragicomic pathos.
Singer and wordsmith Damon Albarn had attended drama school, and appropriately most Blur songs were like miniature satirical plays. The Great Escape was full of third-person vignettes that caricatured English stereotypes, such as Ernold Same – a brief sketch about a conformist commuter crushed by soul-numbing routine.
Country House – the single that beat Oasis to the UK #1 spot – is about a city gent who retreats from the urban rat race. Mocking a name-dropping poseur, Charmless Man echoes the heavy-handed satire of The Kinks‘ Dedicated Follower of Fashion, while Top Man is a punning portrait of a womanising thug who’s “naughty by nature/shooting guns on the High Street of Love”.
Despite flashes of wit, there was a condescending detachment and lack of compassion to Albarn’s writing that made his characters hollow and two-dimensional. The singer’s bogus Cockney accent – where “cold sweat” was pronounced “cow swah” – and his perpetual sneering tone, also became irritating with prolonged exposure.
1997’s Blur found the band leaving Britpop far behind to explore more experimental terrain like Beetlebum and Essex Dogs. There was, though, the small matter of Song 2 – a two-minute ‘throwaway’ that finally broke the band in America. Written to spoof grunge, it became their biggest song . . .
With 13 (1999) the band pushed even further into denser and more cerebral musical territory. Many of the songs on the album found Albarn baring his soul about his recent split from Justine Frischmann, while Coxon’s relationship with the band was becoming increasingly fractious.
Blur finally imploded during their 2003 sessions for their final studio album, Think Tank. The LP was recorded in the wake of the success of Albarn’s side project (experimental cartoon hip-hop band Gorillaz). Graham Coxon quit the band early in the sessions.
The group headlined Glastonbury in 2009 – nearly a decade since the original line-up last appeared on stage together, and with successive gigs up to 2013 – including one at the end of the 2012 London Olympic Games – all the rifts seem to have been healed and the door to future musical happiness appears to have been left wide open.
Vocals, guitar, keyboards