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Music

Woohoo! The legacy of Blur's 1997 self-titled album

@SamWKemp

An album that is quite literally as old as I am, Blur’s 1997 self-titled album is Britpop in the midst of an existential crisis. Keen to throw off their twee image, Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree decided to look elsewhere for inspiration: to American and the frozen landscapes of Iceland. Drawing from the scuzzy guitar bands of the US grunge scene, Blur managed to craft a set of songs designed to frighten the bejesus out of their dedicated fanbase, burning down everything they’d built in an effort to revitalise a genre they felt was reaching the end of its natural lifespan. So many years later, it still stands up as one of Blur’s most experimental and iconic albums, its status cemented by its era-defining lead single ‘Song 2’. But, so many years later, that angsty slice of popified no-wave is one of the least interesting offerings given up by Blur. What really shines through are those tracks that manage to capture the comedown of Britpop just as the 1990s was coming to a close.

Despite the success of Blur’s previous album, The Great Escape, by 1997, the group had lost some of their lustre. The Battle of Britpop was over, and the general consensus was that Blur had lost — left to lick their wounds while Oasis soared above, digging into the likes of Albarn whenever they got the chance. While Oasis were celebrated as working-class heroes of contemporary rock, Blur – and especially Albarn – became figures of fun, one of those harmless cuddly bands like Slowdive, whose distinguishing characteristic was a stunning lack of menace. At the same time, the hedonism that had accompanied their rise to the top had now given way to nervous collapse. While Graham Coxon struggled to control his drinking problem, Albarn started to withdraw from public life. Alex James, meanwhile, presumably continued trying to sleep with every female journalist working for the NME and dreaming of that cheese farm in Suffolk.

Coxon began to resent his fellow bandmates, frustrated by Albarn’s near-total control of the group’s artistic output. In response, he began writing songs that sought to erase the musical aesthetic that Blur had cultivated over the last few years and replace it with the textured nihilism of groups like Pavement and Sonic Youth; bands who were less interested in writing hooky pop riffs than they were pushing their instruments to the very fringes of their capability. It was Coxon’s revitalised interest in guitar music combined with the strength of Albarn’s pop-craft that allowed Blur to create an album that is both utterly anarchic and radio-friendly. As Coxon later said of Blur: “Maybe I just had strong ideas this time. I had an awful lot of sounds and styles in mind, so I collected them together, put them through my sieve and then applied it to Damon’s songs”.

The result was astonishing. Blur opens with a series of infectious earworms, which include the magnificent ‘Beetlebum’, ‘Song 2’, and ‘Country Sad Ballad Man’. But with M.O.R’, the album takes a turn into far more experimental territory. As Coxon gives over more and more of his guitar playing to the effects pedals at his feet, we slide into the likes of ‘On Your Own’ – a track that stutters with a digital pulse as Albarn’s lyrics gradually fold into glorious cynicism. While everyone thought that the darkness at the heart of Blur would alienate the group’s predominantly teenage fanbase, it debuted at number one in the UK album charts. Far from committing commercial suicide, Blur had crafted their most successful album to date, with ‘Song 2′ quickly becoming the bands’ most recognisable track internationally.

Today, Blur seems to mark a watershed moment in British pop music – signalling the end of Britpop’s charming eccentricities. With the millennium just three years away, Blur and the like were beginning to come down from a decade long high. Albarn sums up the feeling of anticlimax in ‘Death Of a Party’, in which he sings: “The death of the party/ Came as no surprise/ Why did we bother?”. Soon, the offspring of the American bands that Coxon was so nourished by would come to dominate the UK charts, wiping away the quirks and idiosyncrasies that had defined the Cool Britannia era, leaving a space that was quickly occupied by the homogenising bulk of pop-punk. No wonder that war cry of “woohoo” on ‘Song 2’ continues to make us feel so nostalgic; in a way, it was Britpop’s final death rattle.

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