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(Credit: Blur)

Music

How Blur abandoned Britpop with the lyrical album '13'

The perfect Blur album doesn’t really exist. The band wrapped together with a series of blinding songs that were layered with dizzying levels of invention, and moments of tremendous introspection, yet there’s never a seamless album that flows with the certainty and confidence of Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. Blur acolytes tend to highlight the album’s standouts – the jaunty ‘Parklife’ or the turbo-charged energy of ‘Song 2’ – but tend to forget that these are numbers, not records, counting as appetisers and not a full meal.

But there’s no denying the fact that Blur were a better band than Oasis, which likely explains why their concerts were so immersive, and their compilations made for such riveting listening experiences. There was scarcely a genre Blur couldn’t master, and rather than use the studio to rehearse their stage output, used the studio as the starting point for their compositions, which could change shape wherever the band felt was best for their work.

They helped to launch Britpop, although they were growing bored of the movement by the time they released their fifth album, infusing garage rock into the mix. What it showed was Graham Coxon‘s muscle, but the band were now being accused of genre-hopping, which lay at odds with their versatility and technical acumen, and the only way to counter the barbs was to showcase their truth.

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The only question that remained for the band in 1999 was how truthful they were willing to go, but vocalist Damon Albarn had just walked out of a relationship, bringing a sense of finality to the recordings that stemmed from his heart and soul. The sadness is evident on ‘No Distance Left to Run’, which featured the vocalist in strangely naked form. Indeed, the recording was said to leave him to tears, but the vocal showed that the largely cerebral band had a beating heart.

Coxon was growing more confident as a creative thinker, singing the jaunty vocal on ‘Coffee and TV’, which he wrote almost entirely alone. Coxon and Albarn put their heads together on the gospel flavoured ‘Tender’, which featured one moment of despair, versus a more expressive choir that soaked into the tune. Dave Rowntree’s drums were becoming more propulsive, especially on the barrelling ‘Swamp Song’, and the album frequently flits from aching personal to ragingly piercing. ‘B.L.U.R.E.M.I’ continued the band’s desire to experiment, favouring the darker, denser sentiments of love over the more whimsical avenues of their earlier work.

By 1999, Britpop was slowly drifting into an abyss, and unlike Oasis, they were keen to move on from the celebrations of the newer Britain. The best way to venture into a new millennium was to embrace change, whether it was Albarn saying farewell to his romantic partner, or for the band to dispense with longtime producer Stephen Street, and to collaborate with William Orbit.

Typically, the new producer found the sessions exciting and challenging, frequently mediating between the band’s two songwriters. “There was a battle between Damon’s more experimental direction,” Orbit remembered, “And Graham’s punk one, and Graham prevailed. If that tension had been growing on previous LPs, it came to a head here.” Coxon later conceded that his behaviour led to some startling guitar sounds – his work on ‘Bugman’ is particularly exhilarating – but that it made him unpleasant to hang around with.

Coxon was drinking more excessively, and he was beginning to write songs for a solo career. Albarn was also growing tired of the band and took the ultimate step to found Gorillaz, whose first album held a greater focus and purpose to any of the Blur albums. It was difficult for him to return to Blur having experienced such immense success with Gorillaz, but he felt he owed it to the band to record another album, even if it went against his wishes.

By then, the truth had been replaced by fusion, and the band’s seventh album was also their most catholic yet, bringing in many of the drum-heavy influences that had seeped into Albarn’s solo work. Think Tank is notable for holding a more carefree sound to 13, as Albarn had largely absolved himself of the missteps of his romantic endeavours. The drums were loose, the bass lines were punchy, and the production rippled with energy and infectious excitement, every beat performed was put in place with great insight into the groove.

It was a more enjoyable album than 13, but it wouldn’t have been made but for the legacy of the 1999 effort. Coxon’s demons were growing more uncontrollable over time, and the guitarist was growing less comfortable playing lieutenant to the increasingly bossier Albarn. Sensing that his influence was waning, and fearing for his health, Coxon stopped turning up to sessions for Blur’s Think Tank, and by the time the band released the album in 2003, he was gone.