Thursday, 1 July 2010

Is Modern Life Rubbish?

Apart from a few odd bits and pieces, we come next to Blur, about whom I have very mixed feelings. I've got almost everything they've done on vinyl, and have gradually acquired some on CD: Leisure, Modern Life is Rubbish and Think Tank.

In general, my thoughts on Blur are these: wonderful at writing heartbreaking songs of loss, dislocation and loneliness, far too keen on making knees-up-chirpy stuff, tailed off badly, band consists of people I'd definitely not get on with, though Alex James would probably be amusing for half an hour. They also made beautiful vinyl singles - great artwork.

More musically, I'd score the music thus:
Leisure - bandwagon-jumping baggy fun ('She's So High', 'There's No Other Way') mixed with melancholy loveliness ('Bad Day', 'Sing'). Better than everyone thinks but didn't imply longevity.

Modern Life is Rubbish - written in response to record company pressure and from distaste at the way everyone rushed for grunge (like The Auteurs' 'American Guitars'). Despite its suspiciously reactionary title and artwork, it's a masterpiece - witty, thoughtful lyrics, tunes to swoon to, sums up urban life in early 90s Britain, brought back the suit-jacket-with-Doctor Martens look I've clung to ever since. Every track a gem. This is by far my favourite Blur album, and one of the best of the 90s.

Parklife. The album which made them famous. I didn't buy it because I came to hate 'Girls and Boys' and mockney bollocks 'Parklife' so much. The former is a great track - about but also partaking in the kind of national summer holiday Britpop seemed to usher in - but it became so ubiquitous, and was treated as a celebration of hedonism, which it only partly was. It does contain three of the greatest tracks of the 90s, 'To The End' (my 7" comes with Françoise Hardy joining the band to do it in French), 'This is a Low' and 'End of a Century' - other tracks are stunning but my taste runs to these downbeat songs. In the middle of the self-regarding Britpop scene which the band largely embraced boozily and happily, Blur also prefigured its end, as did Pulp. Looking back, I got this LP badly wrong. They were on my wavelength - but I didn't notice.

Then came The Great Escape. I bought it, played it once or twice and put it away for a decade: its' cheeky chappy hedonism (particularly 'Country House') seemed mechanical and tired. That said, my unreleased promo 12" of 'The Universal' is much loved and I adore 'Yuko and Hiro'. Returning to it after several years, I really appreciate the undertone of desperation and despair in these suburban tales.

I was much happier with Blur, the eponymous album that embraced Graham Coxon's love of loud, brash guitars and American lo-fi: the sound of a band trying to break away from their self-imposed straitjacket. You'll know, of course, 'Song 2', and 'Beetlebum', which charts the decline of Albarn's relationship with Justine of Elastica, just then beginning a heroin addiction. After the clever-clever albums before, some pop with a heavy dose of joyous rock was just what we needed.

After that came 13, another downbeat slab of loveliness, fuelled by the cracks in the band's previous gang mentality. Drink, drugs, fame, sex, changing musical tastes and the musician's life made the band a much more fragile entity - from this melange of stress came deceptively simple tracks like 'Coffee and TV' and the miserable beauty of 'Tender' and 'No Distance Left to Run', which marks the end of the Albarn/Frischmann relationship. It's a comedown album, just like Pulp's This Is Hardcore - a relieved and depressed farewell to the excesses of the 90s.

The final studio album was Think Tank. To be honest, I've hardly listened to it. I'd moved on and the band were clearly in a mess: Graham departed acrimonously and made several interesting lo-fi folk/punk albums, they were all messing about in other ways (Gorillaz was taking Albarn's attention, Alex was making cheese, Dave was getting into politics) and I just didn't have the energy to invest in the comedown of a band whose time was clearly over. It's not very good, basically.

Since then, they've reunited for some triumphant gigs, but thankfully aren't making more music. I've a huge amount of respect and affection for Blur, though not for the individuals making up the band, but their time has passed and they've left several magnificent memorials. I'd also recommend Graham's solo stuff. As to Alex's Me Me Me and Fat Les comedy projects, and Gorillaz, they're OK if you like that sort of thing. Which I don't.


Benjamin Judge said...

Whatdafa? You don't like Me Me Me? Banging Around is worth a million Coxon albums.

I really like the Gorillaz stuff, and don't forget Albarn has also done Monkey, Mali Music, The Good, The Bad and the Queen, and the Ravenous soundtrack with Nyman.

In fact, considering James' rather brilliant cheese and the fact that Dave learned how to fly a helicopter and then moved into Labour politics I can't help feeling Coxon is the most dissapointing of the band in terms of What Next?...

My favourite Blur album tends to fluctuate between Modern Life Is Rubbish, Leisure, Parklife, and The Great Escape. I often wish they had come up with a way of tempering and strengthening their sound instead of moving toward lo-fi (although obviously Blur and 13 are great albums)

neal said...

Here's a tip for you:

When in the pub with Mark and Dan on no account should you say “So, what do you think of Song 2?” The argument will last all night, with neither party giving any ground.

The Plashing Vole said...

Good tip.
I know I should like Albarn's stuff, but I just can't warm to it. I haven't had a chance to try Alex's cheese, I don't approve of gratuitous flying, and Dave is very, very New Labour.

Benjamin Judge said...

I don't approve of gratuitous singing like a fox being choked - so Graham is still bottom of the pile.

And of course, all those slow sweeping ballads by Blur are all "Albarn's stuff" so you do like some of it.

Graham Quirk said...

Great piece, can't say I disagree with a word of it. A lot of people don't appreciate exactly how washed up Blur were after their first album (despite it containing 2 or 3 tracks that showed they were destined for greatness.) Modern life had a big effect on me too, it was a perfect blend of art school rock and English nostalgia. I loved the imagery they created, probably because it reminded me of The Smiths so much, who also seemed to be able to blend such disparate influences so effectively.

Anonymous said...

I love blur forever!!