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Blur - 13
Reviewed by Q, April 1999

coverStrangely enough, for a group whose 1991 breakthrough hit was entitled There's No Other Way, there's every possibility that Blur really could have gone either way. Not until Food hooked up the artists formerly known as Seymour with Smiths producer Stephen Street - who took a song originally twice its recorded speed and strapped on loping Stone Roses breakbeats, to craft a single that reached Number 8 - did Blur really begin to resemble a commercially viable proposition. No matter how much of a cherubic pin-up their lead singer happened to be.

Early, pre-release Blur gigs on the circuit of dank, toilet-scented capital venues showcased a band who were equal parts deep-fried garage psychedelia and abrasive new wave, as fronted by a dirty blond, middle-class pretty boy whose chief desire, it seemed, was to emulate Iggy Pop. In this nascent period -- while not too far removed from the pogo-ing live performer he remains - Damon Albarn was willing to go to extraordinary lengths to capture the attention of his audience: scaling precariously balanced PA stacks with the speed and agility of a monkey, launching himself into the crowd (a good 18 months before stage-diving became vogue with the grunge audiences that Blur later claimed to despise) and, on occasion, stopping singing altogether and simply battering himself around the cranium with his microphone.

At heart, Blur were always left-field. Later, when the fight they picked with Oasis came dangerously close to finishing them off, they found a new space within the 14 diverse tracks of their eponymous fifth album. In some ways, however, Blur had simply got back in touch with what came naturally: Song 2 would have seamlessly slotted into any of their early live sets. With 1997's Blur album, it appeared to have dawned on them that as long as they had three or four decent singles, the remainder of an album could become a playground for their art rock imaginations. Which takes us to 13, already likened by Albarn in respect to Blur's fifth album as "Parklife to Modern Life Is Rubbish".

Still, it's a misleading statement. If Parklife magnified the stylisms patented in Modern Life Is Rubbish to great unit-shovelling benefit, then it was arguably an exercise in extremes. In that sense, 13 takes the outer reaches of the Blur album and then, challenging the commercial consequences and even tempting superstitious luck with its title, pushes the envelope.

The launch point for 13 is I'm Just A Killer For Your Love, the 10th track on Blur, performed in a distorted American accent - a surprising new addition to Albarn's canon of multi-personality vocal traits - and added to the album at the 11th hour, having been originally slated as a B-side. Notably, it was the only track on Blur not produced by Stephen Street, mainstay of their catalogue. 13 marks the break-up of that long-standing relationship and the band's gravitation towards William Orbit, after the electronic sound designer's odd, Ramones-flavoured remix of On Your Own for the stopgap Bustin' & Dronin' remix album inspired the group.

While some preliminary work on Blur's sixth album began before the 1998 World Cup, the group slacked off for the entirety of the tournament, regrouping days after the final whistle for the beginning of sessions that guitarist Graham Coxon grimly predicted would be "hard". Orbit has hinted that the recording of 13 was troubled: "sometimes there was blood on the floor… figuratively speaking", citing the personal problems of Coxon and Albarn as fogging the process.

Blur found their creative legs this time around through lengthy improvisations, captured and edited digitally by Orbit. As a result, 13 is their loosest, skaggyest work. Calling card single Tender has already burned itself into the national consciousness, all Appalachian guitar and Give Peace A Chance shuffle, although it's really no indication of what follows. Potential singles first, then. Bugman is Song 2 taking a detour through Suffragette City. The lyrical premise remains abstractly dumb ("I go out in the city/I stay away from the bugs"), with Albarn resurrecting his Iggy/Ian Hunter-cribbed stance, resulting in what will surely be a thrilling, filthy moment come the chart rundown.

Coffee & TV is the closest offering to Old Blur: an upbeat, easy-strummer led by Coxon (wry opening line: "Do you feel like a chain store?/Practically floored") in the verses, before the baton is passed to Albarn for the sugar-sweet, yet soporific choruses. Other than that, as an outside bet, two tracks before the album's close there is Trimm Trabb, built around acoustic guitar and skippy, filtered drums, which gives way to a Scary Monsters-fashioned guitar collage outro. In a resigned, semi-detached tone, Albarn intones the chorus hookline: "Let it flow/I'll sleep alone".

Flagged up in the pre-publicity as Albarn's most baldly personal album lyrically, 13 strives in some way to counter the lingering accusations that Blur remain a stylish, yet soulless outfit. It is, naturally enough, within the ballads that the singer off-loads his emotional baggage. Still, the emphasis for the most part is firmly on the oblique.

In Caramel, their most prog-rock effort since This Is A Low, gently chiming guitars and Procol Harum organ provide the backdrop to a series of dislocated decisions - "I've gotta get over/I've gotta get better/I love you forever" - before launching into a lengthy baroque vocal crescendo that echoes Yes. Already, it's easy to picture it being a highpoint of Blur's next festival set.

The track 1992, pointedly the year that Damon and Justine Frischmann met, recalls Sing from their 1991 Leisure debut and offers the teasing couplet "What do you owe me?/The price of your peace of mind", although tellingly, the last verse arrives in indecipherable falsetto behind a wall of space echo feedback.

Only in the introspective, yet oddly anthemic No Distance Left To Run does the singer strip himself bare. An open letter to his ex-partner, the initial verses are full of self-pity ("It's over/You don't need to tell me/I won't kill myself trying to stay in your life") before fuelling rumours that their split was hastened by drug problems ("When you're coming down, think of me here") and then finally lays some measure of blame at his own door, as Albarn expresses the wish that in the future she finds someone who "stays around, spends more time with you". Delicate and touching as it is, it's the only moment where he lets his guard down.

This being Blur, much of the remainder of 13 is artful sonic experimentation. The nursery rhyme dub of Battle could be a collaboration with UNKLE; the vague, record industry-trashing B.L.U.R.E.M.I. sounds not unwelcomingly like Top Of The Pops by The Rezillos; Swamp Song - destined to set the teeth of any Blur-hater on edge - throws glam rock shapes and features the frontman strangulating his vowels in cartoon Bowie/Ferry mode with a string of throwaway lines ("Give me fever/Give me space brain").

Only with Trailerpark - self-produced and originally intended for the South Park album - do they come a cropper, with half-baked hip hop dub, topped by Albarn MC-ing like a white dread with a mobile disco in the corner of the Uni bar. All said, there's every chance that, aside from Tender and possibly Coffee & TV, the floating Blur fan will simply be confused by 13, sledge-hammering away large chunks of their current audience. Still, it remains a dense, fascinating, idiosyncratic and accomplished art rock album. In that sense, perhaps, six albums in, Blur have come full circle.

star star star star  (4/5) Tom Doyle
 

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