You’re So Great
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Blur’s Eponymous Album at Twenty-Two
I recall the Britpop years and a time when...
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Blur and Oasis battled it out for chart supremacy! Between 1994 and 1997, it was like the two bands were releasing albums close to one another on purpose. Although Blur released Parklife in April of 1994 – Oasis released their debut, Definitely Maybe, in August – it was a spectacular year for two mighty British bands. Blur had been releasing material since the early-1990s (perhaps a bit before) and they made a big impact with Parklife. In a year that saw so many genius albums, Parklife is seen as one of the very best. It is a masterful record filled with Pop gems that range from the simple and catchy to the slightly quirky and odd. The title offering inspired endless singalongs and is one of the defining anthems of the Britpop time; emotional tracks such as This Is a Low proved Blur had depth alongside the cheekiness and energy. Oasis were not be undone and outshone. They were not directly in competition with Blur then but their debut arrived and singled them out as a northern, working-class alternative. Definitely Maybe is packed with anthems and arena-ready gems that saw the band ascend from the unknown to the mega-big. The album was an instant commercial and critical success whilst songs such as Live Forever and Slide Away ingrained themselves into the minds of the masses! There was this battle between the bands that intensified by 1995. There was the Britpop chart battle between Blur’s Country House and Oasis’ Roll with It and, whilst neither was the best work of either, Blur won the day.
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Both bands followed up career-defining albums the year after. Oasis kept the pace going with the excellent (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? whereas Blur brought us The Great Escape. Oasis’ sophomore record provided the world Wonderwall and Some Might Say – many felt the album was even stronger than their debut! Oasis continued their hot streak and did not vary their template too much. Blur stayed fairly close to Parklife’s sound but there were many who felt Oasis were ahead in 1995. Reviewers were kind to Blur but not as ecstatic as they were the year before. Something similar would happen to Oasis in 1997 but, soon after the acclaim came in for The Great Escape, many critics started to wander away. It is clear there are some great songs on The Great Escape. Stereotypes, Charmless Man and The Universal are among the best Blur songs released and match the funny and interesting with the brave and bold. Although Oasis and Blur both produced epic albums, many critics and journalists felt Oasis were cooler and could sell more magazines. Some reviewers realised Oasis were stronger in 1995 and issues retractions regarding five-star reviews. Some felt The Great Escape lacked the breadth and commercial appeal of Parklife and, because of that, Oasis edged ahead. That media hype and swift retraction would blight Oasis by 1997.
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Both bands, again, released albums in the same year. Blur were to undergo a massive change and evolution whereas Oasis put their foot more on the gas and came up with the bloated, overlong and unfocused Be Here Now. They did not release that album until August – Blur’s revived masterpiece had been out in the world over six months before Oasis could respond. It was not as though both bands were recording material to best the other but there was a sense that, by 1997, these Britpop titans had to adapt to changes. There was no longer this huge Pop core and British dominance: American guitars and bands were being promoted and there was a yearning for something a bit difference. Maybe the romance of Britpop had died and it was clear bands had to adapt. Oasis’ third album has some great moments (Stand by Me among them) but the record wanders and there is a lack of anthems. They gave themselves a hard task following up two world-class albums and, as such, Be Here Now seemed like a disappointment. Critics raved about the album but it was because of hype and build-up; the same sort Blur received in 1995. Whereas Blur’s shock would see them produce a great retort, Oasis did not really recover and it was clear they had already peaked. What is amazing about Blur’s eponymous album is the fact it sounds distinctly like them but incorporates American influences and moves with the time.
The band’s guitarist, Graham Coxon, suggested a stylistic change for Blur. Bands like Pavement were being mooted and, alongside producer Stephen Street, Blur set about recording an album that was theirs but sounded like nothing they had produced before. There were Pop jewels to be found on Blur but the record is a grittier, more experimental recording than their previous efforts. The band feared their new direction might alienate their fanbase and the label but, with singles like Beetlebum doing well and storming the charts, there was no worry of that! Beetlebum, according to Blur’s lead Damon Albarn, was a song about heroine and the drug experiences of his then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann (of Elastica). The song is sleepy and catchy and, whilst one can believe Albarn’s story, the Beatles-nodding sound might be a dig at Oasis and their dependence on the Liverpool band for inspiration! There were tensions between members of Blur before they started recording and there was a fear they would dissolve before another record. Coxon was battling drinking problems and the abandonment of their Britpop sound did not bode too well with the other band members at first. The band wanted to scare people again and wanted something more stripped-down. Albarn came around to Coxon’s love of lo-fi American music and it was the harmony that came which led to such a brilliant album.
Whereas Oasis’ ego and sense of fame led them to lose clarity and a sense of focus, Blur were on the point of split and regrouped; concentrated on a new direction and taking their music to another level. Recording was split between London and Iceland and, after recording at Mayfair Studios in London, the remainder of the album was laid down in Reykjavik. Vocals for tracks such as Beetlebum and On Your Own were recorded there. The band wanted to head away from the Britpop scene and see whether this new and strange environment could work its wonders. Blur had moved from this band with commercial pressures who were writing big hits to people who were more concerned with texture and taking their time. The band started to jam together and there seemed to be more relaxation and cooperation in the ranks. They had recovered from this strained unit to a Blur that was willing to try something new. The music on Blur, like every other album from the band, was eclectic and took in a number of different genres. If anything, the eponymous album was more varied and interesting than anything they had ever recorded. Death of a Party – my favourite song from the album – had a sense of creep and unnerving; the band taking the lights down and being darker.
IN THIS PHOTO: Blur (circa mid-1990s)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Chinese Bombs is a straight rave and burst that is all Punk and teeth; Country Sad Ballad Man is lo-fi Psychedelia and On Your Own is a classic slice of youthful Blur – big choruses and a terrific vocal from Damon Albarn. You’re So Great (a rare lead vocal from Graham Coxon) is the biggest nod to America and Blur is that perfect unity of American guitar music and the Pop they were leaving behind. Look Inside America is another gem and one of the most interesting songs the band ever recorded. The boys had the songs and a new lease of life but there was still a worry that they were committing some form of commercial suicide. Blur were used to playing to teenage fans – a lot of female admirers – and had this perception in the press. Blur was them shedding that skin and making music more primed to older boys; maybe those who were less enamoured of Pop and keener on American Indie. Tracks like Song 2 – not even two minutes but, within a few seconds, it was always likely to be a classic – and Beetlebum kept Blur in the mainstream and, if anything, gained them a new core of fans. Their eponymous record was a big success and hit the top of the charts around the world. It took a little while for all critics in the U.K. to get behind the record. American critics were keen and impressed – maybe thinking this was an American band! – whereas journalists here were adjusting to this 2.0 Blur.
Retrospective reviews are kinder and, before long, critics started to get behind Blur. Whereas Blur would see critics rave over The Great Escape and then withdraw some praise later, it seemed like the reverse was true here – Oasis would suffer their version of The Great Escape later in 1997. This review from Rolling Stone showed the sort of love that was coming from the American press in 1997:
“So you get terrific things like “Beetlebum,” a rare Beatles tribute in that it remembers to include the Fab Four’s sex appeal, and the otherworldly street ballad “Strange News From Another Star,” which luxuriates in lots of melancholy and infinite sadness. You get classic English gesturing in “Death of a Party” (imagine Noel Coward in a band), and you get elastic rockers (“I’m Just a Killer for Your Love”), witty celebrity profiles (“Country Sad Ballad Man”) and one dashing old-style dramatic piece (“Essex Dogs”). “M.O.R.” is a roaring homage to Mott the Hoople.
But most of Blur remains fascinated with the U.S., as in the classic ’90s road ballad “Look Inside America.” In the song, the band is just up from last night’s show, swigging Pepsi to find the energy to do a local TV show. Blur’s single has been added to KROQ. “Look inside America,” Blur sing. “She’s all right; she’s all right.” Blur might just see the compliment returned”.
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There were some positive British reviews at the time but this one, from NME, tried to reconcile the ‘new Blur’ with the old:
“Old Blur was about strings finely plucked, about attention to detail, about rendering beautiful the substance of other people's lives. New Blur is about confusion, about what they feel and so it is about scuffed edges, new influences; the same incredible talent for songwriting but twisted into uncomfortable shapes. It's just that where once (Piers! Suits! Clacton!) these influences were wildly out there, now (Tortoise! Beastie Boys! Er, guitars!) they're already so widely available, this abrupt change of sound can't help but sound like a purely cosmetic calculation. That's Damon Albarn. The only man who could get uptight about not appearing slack enough.
It's an American thing, and one of the most disquieting about 'Blur': the idea that sounding untutored - like whacking a hardcore punk song like 'Chinese Bombs' next to a masterful hymn to inertia like 'Death Of A Party' - is in some way a genuinely truthful expression. Through Blur's previous three albums, it has been the sensitivity of the arrangements - the spectre of self-doubt lurking in 'Country House' - that has elevated their songs into the realm of the masterpiece. Missing the point a bit, Blur seem to be attempting to unlearn their craft to appear more 'real’”
I think most of the mediocre reviews Blur received from the British press was based on what they (the press) expected and how they would continue their Britpop plight. Many expected them to produce a similar album to what had come before and unaware the band wanted to evolve and do something different.
I feel critics were overlooking the quality of the songs and how much variety there was. Critics soon opened their minds and eyes and Blur’s eponymous record is seen as one of their finest. They had, as I mentioned, retained their sound and identity but there was a move away from British Pop and more American influence guiding them. I love how they moved from short and intense songs such as Chinese Bombs and could give us something expansive and extensive like Essex Dogs. Consider Song 2 and its sound and match it with Look Inside America. There are no weak tracks on the album (in my view) and I can tell how inspired the band sound. Blur are still going (I think) but they helped introduce American sounds to Britain and, whilst people were aware of new American sounds, Blur made a big impression. Blur would continue to record albums after 1997 but I do not think they matched the heights and depths of Blur. It is a record that sounds exceptional still and keeps revealing new pearls and favourites. Many go after the big hits like Song 2 and On Your Own but I love Death of a Party and Look Inside America – others like the rarer oddities like Essex Dogs and Theme from Retro. 1997 was a year when Britain’s two biggest bands, Blur and Oasis, were priming new albums and both were in different places. Oasis could do no wrong and many felt their third album would topple everything that came before. Blur hit gold with 1994’s Parklife but The Great Escape found them elevated and then brought down to earth – it was a strange time and it seemed like their commercial pull was on the slide. Blur came along on 10th February, 1997 and took them to new heights. It might have taken the British press a while to warm to the wonders of the album but now, twenty-two years later, Blur is considered a...
TRULY stunning record.