Monday, 2 July 2012

Blur - 13 - Revisited

The late 90's were a very interesting period in Blur's career. Their self titled 1997 saw a raw reinvention and a complete step away from the britpop scene, replacing the lively English pop with a darker, rougher edged and more inventive approach to making music. Despite alienating some of their casual fanbase, the album saw them regain a lot of critical respect and also helped the band become better known worldwide. 

Wondering what direction the next Blur album was going to take was something that brought up many possibilities. Would they decide the experimenting was out of their system and return to writing catchy pop anthems again? After 'Song 2''s success would this be their lo-fi grunge punk album? It was confirmed that the record would be produced by William Orbit, a dance musician who had previously worked with Madonna on her 'Ray Of Light' album. Would this be Blur's dance album? Far from being littered with club anthems and trance beats, '13' would turn out to be a brave, ambitious and emotionally fragile piece of work that sounds even more incredible 13 years on than it did back then. Before its release the music press was alive with speculation about what the album, and when I first read about the album's first single, the band described it as a country-gospel song. When I first heard it I realised it was indeed that, but a whole lot more too. 

I bought the single on its day on release from a record shop in Bath called Rival Records, and a few weeks later also purchased '13' on the day it hit the shops. I recall maybe hearing a few of the tracks previewed on Radio One in the week leading up to the album's release, but hearing the album was an utter revelation. I also instantly found it to be even more of a challenging listen than its predecessor, but after a while every single moment of '13' grew on me in a most rewarding way. It's hard to imagine anything more uplifting than the joyously soulful 'Tender', and on the complete opposite end of the spectrum is the blistering 'Bugman' with its brutal guitar fuzz and pneumatic drill noise that descends into utter chaos. 'Coffee And TV' was noticeably more pop than anything else but even the album's most accessible moment had an off kilter quality and a slightly weird feel to it, topped off with Coxon's squealing, shredding guitar towards the end. 

'Swamp Song' was more like a swamp monster, heavy and very muddy indeed, while 'B.L.U.R.E.M.I' goes truly berserk with its punk riffs, deranged helium voices on the chorus and some bizarrely placed melodica. 'Mellow Song' switches from bare voice and acoustic guitar to a slow sounding rhythm topped off with an addictive bassline and more of that melodica, an instrument that Albarn makes superb use of on '13'. Much was said of the personal nature of the lyrics throughout the record, and revelatory they are indeed. '1992' is a musical relative of 'Sing' from their debut album 'Leisure' that seems to lyrically address themes of infidelity, while the dark sombre music aches with shattered emotions and torn hearts. 'Battle' manages to be both noisy and relaxing at the same time, and pairs blissful ambience with more of the incredible sounds that emerge from Coxon's guitar. 

'Trailerpark' instantly conjures up images of dirty ghetto streets as Albarn delivers the vocal in his deepest and most solemn tone, but he saves his most emotional performance for the desolate ambience of 'Caramel'. It almost feels like you shouldn't be hearing something so personal, but clearly this song couldn't have existed any other way. Ambient textures flow into one another dramatically as Damon shares his heartbreak so openly and sincerely. 'Trimm Trabb' is made up of another rhythm formed from odd percussion sounds and a rather grungy acoustic guitar riff before exploding like a nail bomb at the end as Coxon unleashes more devastating guitar. 'No Distance Left To Run' delivers beautifully resigned emotion as the candid lyrics are sung by Albarn in his most fragile tone while the arrangement is wonderfully minimal. Ending with a short Joe Meek-esque instrumental with a nod to some of the fairground organ that featured in a few of their Britpop era tracks, but this time far more grainy, sounding like some long lost 78 record from the past. 

When '13' was released I had been a Blur fan for five years and was always pleased to see them taking new directions, but this album did take a while to sink in. 13 years later '13' is a record that resonates even more now than it did back then, and stands as perhaps the last great Blur album. The band slowly fell apart soon after, with Graham departing in 2001, leaving a three piece to record 2003's underwhelming 'Think Tank'. When the four piece returned in 2009 for a series of triumphant shows, the songs from '13' that once sounded a bit odd now sounded like real anthems...

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