By Phillip Jon Taylor
Heartbreak, disenchantment and a new direction: how Blur transcended Britpop on 13
Whenever I talk about Blur, one thing is for sure – the response always varies considerably. Immediately even! As soon as I mention them, it’s met with either a sigh or gasp of admiration. More often than not though, Oasis will enter into the conversation in easily under a minute. I realise the irony of me doing so right here, but there we have it. Point proved. For the record, I like both. Having been born in 1990 with older brothers already about to take their first steps into their teenage years, it was inevitable that I’d be exposed to the booming mainstream of British youth culture that was seemingly taking over the planet by 1996 (The Spice Girls/Euro 96). My older brother, Ian, was unfortunately dealt the bum hand of having to share a room with his annoying six-year-old brother who loved The Spice Girls and fought for wall space for a Mel C poster. My highlight of the week sharing that room was every Sunday afternoon when he’d listen to the Pepsi Chart on our radio with a blank tape at the ready – capturing his own mixtape of all the latest pop releases before the new school week in our tiny highland town.
This is around the time that I first became familiar with Blur. My attention fully won one night in 1996 after seeing the band perform on TFI Friday as I was being babysat by the daughter of one of my mother’s work colleagues while they went for a rare night out on the glittering tiles of Invergordon. Seeing Graham Coxon with his thick glasses and nervous presence ripping the guitar went against what I’d seen of atypical rock stars on TV and in magazines. I was fully captured by his presence.
Riding high on the breakthrough of 1994’s Parklife and then The Great Escape, the following year, Damon Albarn had proved his point after longing for British bands to secure an identity on the world stage after feeling the overbearing effect of the American alternative rock revolution. The latter of those records had them dive into the fateful caricaturish sprint for number one that reluctantly birthed Britpop as a result of their race with the Gallagher brothers. By the end of 1995, it was starting to show that, perhaps, Coxon wasn’t feeling at home dressing up to play Country House to crowds of young screaming fans. It’s well reported that he much favoured the company of men with dogs on the end of strings down The Crown and Goose – drinking himself as far away as he needed to be from the Britpop brush that had him tarred and feathered. He was coming to resent his bandmates while Albarn dealt with the press hounding him and partner Justine Frischmann of Elastica. The reluctantly dubbed Posh and Becks of indie Brit Rock.
Coxon and his love for the lo-fi underground eventually found its way to the forefront, and their aptly self-titled record in 1997 was most definitely a re-birth. Spearheaded by the brooding of Beetlebum, it was almost a completely new band. It’s not the first time that Blur had reshuffled their cards, but the song about the lives of those around Albarn, being as he has remarked ‘muddied with heroin,’ entered the UK chart at number one despite all press claims that the record and direction would be career suicide.
Stepping into the slightly experimental transatlantic sound that Coxon loved didn’t alienate the fanbase of young teenyboppers that they’d accumulated. They backed it, and songs like You’re So Great set the record straight for Coxon. His incredibly fragile and emotional voice wearing the influence of Syd Barrett on his sleeve now adequately expressed. The album went Gold in the U.S, and songs like Song 2 brought a new lease of popularity for the band on Coxon’s terms. Albarn’s altered approach to writing and meeting Coxon in the middle was the magic that needed to happen to secure Blur’s legitimacy outside of the middle class parodied pitfalls they’d previously found themselves in.
13 was released in March 1999. Working in Reykjavík with producer, William Orbit, saw the departure of the band’s long-standing run of working with Stephen Street. After the unexpected success of Blur, especially in the U.S, the band continued to lean in the direction of the experimental and alternative. All the while, bands like Pulp, with their 1998 release, This is Hardcore, in tow were signalling the end of the Britwave-era in tremendous style. Albarn’s distinctive melody and charm, now toughened yet all but exhausted, would serve up contrasting material for how Blur would wave goodbye to the ’90s. Most seriously though, the documentation of the breakdown of he and Justine Frischmann’s very public relationship which he said ‘just crashed. I mean, it really was a spectacularly sad end.’ The dreaded 90’s comedown had arrived, and 13 was very much an album in the front line of the malaise.
Tender, the album’s opener epitomises the partnership between the two songwriters. A comforting, melancholic, lazy lullaby of exchanging mantras between Coxon and Albarn celebrates what is all-consuming and great about love, and also what is utterly soul-destroying about it, all under one roof. ‘Tender is the night. Lying by your side,’ the title and recurring lyric nodding head to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is The Night, which in turn was referencing Keats’ Ode To A Nightingale. Responded to by Coxon’s modest (yet now Glastonbury sized singalong) ‘Oh my babyyy, Oh my babyyy. Oh why? Oh my’ like a wounded animal totally capitulating the hurt of what it means to be heartbroken. The London Community Gospel Choir in accompaniment brings a wonderful calm to the song and makes it, almost hymn-like. The first time I heard the song, the intro riff stopped me in my tracks as I was putting on my wee duffle coat getting ready to head out the door to primary school. My brother was watching MTV getting ready for work as always. I just sat down and took it in, and for the rest of that day wandered about singing the tune of Graham’s lo-fi Americana riff. Blur had forayed into the delicate approach before with stand-alone tracks on previous records like The Universal and This Is A Low. Here, the art was mastered. My Nana eventually picked me up a cassette tape copy from Woolworths in Dingwall for my birthday later that year, and that was the first rock record I ever asked for. So, its influence on my future was quite substantial looking back.
Now able to listen to the album in its entirety, I remember getting the fright of my life when hearing the guitar intro for the anticipated next track, Bugman, for the first time after having the quiet Tender on full blast on my tiny cassette player with headphones on. Coxon’s jarring power chords zipping up and down the fretboard and staccato, off melodic lows constantly setting the timbre – his playing a place between Barrett meets Malkmus, where the English and the American influence collide. The songs on this record that are clearly experimental jams emerging from the tail end of loosely mapped out pop songs are where the collection puts its adventurous foot forward in some respect. Knowing that Albarn and Jamie Hewlett were living together and beginning what would be Gorillaz in the wake of his separation from Frischmann, it seeps into 13 – showing that Albarn already had one foot out the door towards the 00’s, and hinting at how his new direction was about to manifest itself.
Coffee and TV is a hot contender for my favourite song of all time. I know, that’s saying a lot. There’s a vivid memory of myself listening to and singing this song over and over – standing up on the swings across the street from my house the year it came out. That pop sensibility is there, and it reeled me in as a kid. Hyperbole aside though, it’s Coxon’s swan song. A subdued tale about a battle with alcoholism and the bitter embrace of coffee and television as a rehabilitative substitute while trying to stay sane. Alienation. ‘Your ears are full but you’re empty. Holding out your heart to people who never really care how you are.’ Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Delivered in a minor pop wistfulness that appeals to truly anyone that loves a song with a serious story told tongue and cheek. I truly love the Syd Barrett influence in Coxon’s melodies. It’s striking, but soothingly innocent. Wishing that ‘we could start over again’ however, gently reminding you that the loose ends are stacking up. The thinly whispered lead chord progressions, screaming solo, blown out outro riff and lyrical wit are all Coxon hallmarks and this song serves as a rosetta stone for him as a songwriter.
Tensions were high between the four members of Blur whilst making 13, and at times you can really feel it in the darker side of this record. Alcohol problems, the embers of a painful loss still flickering, and a band trying to make its way forward despite knowing it was falling apart from the inside. The album cover artwork itself, an oil painting by Coxon, is internally reflective and suggestive of a complete identity change for the band. Expansive trip-hoppy tracks like the soft head waving Trailerpark really do feel like peering into what would be the future of Gorillaz, and it’s somewhat of a time capsule seeing the two directions intertwine – sometimes sounding like two people with different ideas fighting to be at the front of this album. There’s an ominous exploration of the emotional wasteland growing between the two artists throughout.
Caramel confronts the very dark elephant in the room that’s been tiptoed around here and there before, most notably with Beetlebum a few years earlier. Heroin usage is something that Albarn has been very careful to talk about, but in the last ten years or so he has remarked upon it here and there when discussing the record. The complexities of the relationship with Frischmann and the addictions picked up on that journey now became baggage to unpack very publicly – just as most of their relationship had been at the hands of journalists foaming at the mouth trying to snap them coming and going from their home. Caramel is a vast seven and a half minute explorative space of recital and searching for answers. It is vulnerable moments like this that make music truly human. and as close to the bone as it gets. When you think about Blur and what they had come to represent after releasing Leisure, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape and Blur, it all of a sudden becomes very, very un-caricaturish and real listening to this album. The band members themselves admitted that they hadn’t a clue things were so bad between Albarn and Frischmann until hearing the songs he brought to the table for the record.
The soundscapes and the guitar textures on 13 are, at times, reminiscent of Sonic Youth’s colder moments like 1998’s A Thousand Leaves, but the breakbeats and hints at afrobeat that Albarn would come to explore deeper into his career conjure the lo-fi values of artists like Beck. Trimm Trabb is the true deep cut in this instance. Every avenue that the band are exploring throughout the record comes together here in an escalating paranoid cacophony before falling before the feet of one of the most beautifully confessional and reflective songs about the end of a relationship – solidifying the record’s stronghold in a subgenre that’s come to be known as ‘the breakup album.’ In No Distance Left To Run, Albarn laments that ‘I hope you’re with someone that makes you feel safe when you’re sleeping tonight. I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life. I’ve got no distance left to run.’ A solemn blues guitar accompaniment to his friend’s admission of defeat and pain paints like a cautionary tale for the heart while reminding everyone how wonderfully in tune with sensitive expression Coxon’s guitar playing can be. The breakup album is something I’ve explored in depth for better and for worse, and this was my first encounter with one.
Despite, at age nine, it not being directly relative or making much sense to my tiny brain, I was drawn in by the pop appeal and overawed by the obscurities I wasn’t expecting. It did somehow serve as that cautionary tale for my bright-eyed and bushy-tailed heart though. To hear what heartbreak sounded like: ‘When you see me turn your back and walk away. I don’t want to see you ‘cause I know the dreams that you keep, that’s where we meet. When you’re coming down think of me.’ This record became embodied in my personality moving forward into my teen years, and set my barometer for music carrying emotional substance. It taught me not to judge a book by its cover, or work made previously by an artist. There’s always another side to the story. Where Coxon’s writing and performing meet the candid honesty of heartbreak, and the turn of the tide for what is the paranoia soaked electronic looming of the 00’s. That is what makes 13 essential for me.
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