Planet of sound
Blur - 21: The Box (EMI)
BLUR IS a band I’ve long had a difficult relationship with - from loving their early psychedelic indie pop, then despising their Britpop era, to regaining admiration for the quartet’s late 1990s triumphs.
Even then, I’ve never been able to forgive them for the atrocity that was ‘Country House’ while the tendency of Damon Albarn, a man whose talent you cannot doubt, to lapse into occasional Little Englander-isms has grated over the years.
Despite this love-hate relationship, the chance to delve into the 21 box set - 280 tracks, spread over 21 discs - all the studio albums with an additional disc of bonus material and four discs of rare demo and alternative takes - was not one to pass up, and it has been a rewarding journey of joyful rediscovery.
The journey starts, not with debut album Leisure, but with the first of the bonus discs when the band were called Seymour, and while fascinating for die-hards and completists, there is nothing to indicate the inspired and imaginative work to come.
Blur proper arrived in 1991 as neo-psychedelic shoegazers, all wall-of-sound guitars, hazy textures, and big choruses. Although Albarn has stated his dissatisfaction with Leisure, the box set reminds us that its singles - ‘Bang’, ‘There’s No Other Way’, and the magnificent ‘She’s So High’, stand up superbly well today; while album tracks like the wah-wah drenched ‘Bad Day’ and the sombre and anthemic ‘Wear Me Down’ are ripe for rediscovery by contemporary indie/alternative fans, not to mention some fine B-sides that really should have made the album - now happily included on this collection.
1993’s follow-up Modern Life Is Rubbish saw the band taking a step out of their comfort zone. The influences of the peculiarly English sound and point of view of The Kinks and the Richard Wright/Syd Barrett era dominated Pink Floyd were becoming apparent. Yet as their influences became more obvious, conversely so did the band’s growing sense of individuality and maturity.
Although Modern Life... was undervalued at the time, it starts strongly with the wonky anthemics of the excellent ‘For Tomorrow’, and becomes a depiction of contemporary England through slice o’life mini-dramas. Although Parklife was to get the credit, Blur’s declaration of their agenda and identity begin here.
The process which took them there is documented on the bonus discs with a very strong demo of ‘Colin Zeal’; a few takes of ‘Sunday Sunday’ revealing the song’s evolution; and a stripped down Bowie-esque take on ‘For Tomorrow’. From this era also comes one of the best, and oddest moments from the rarities, ‘The Wassailing Song’, an English sea-shanty where each band member sings a verse. Although seemingly out of character, it too is highly revealing of the band’s mindset.
Then came Parklife and The Great Escape. If you were in your teens and 20s in the 1990s there was no escaping these albums, the jingoism of Britpop, and the bizarre Blur v Oasis war. I have never been able to stomach either album and that has not changed.
‘Parklife’ remains irredeemably irritating, trying far too hard to convey a sense of English outlook, experience, and identity, but failing to reach the Ray Davies styled heights it aspires to. Modern Life... communicated these ideas more effortlessly, because it was less forced and obvious. I will always be in a minority on this, but I make no apologies for this view.
As for The Great Escape, all I will say is that when you start thinking that ‘Country House’ makes for a decent single then something has gone wrong. With the exception of ‘The Universal’, this was Blur’s nadir, when embracing the mainstream and believing the Britpop hype made their music suffer.
However the band redeemed themselves in the late 1990s with arguably their finest works. With Britpop dying ignominiously, Blur reinvented themselves to become the art-rock band they always had the potential to be. 1997’s Blur was a good move in this direction, containing the much loved ‘Song 2’, but it was 1999’s 13 that must surely be seen as their masterpiece.
This is the album that began a song unlike anything else in their canon - the powerful gospel-blues of ‘Tender’, an epic song of undying faith in the redeeming power of love. Thirteen years on it still raises the hairs on the back of the neck. A timeless work, this is Blur’s finest hour and one of rock’s all-time great songs.
13 showed how far the quartet had come. Like The Beatles and Bowie, they had the capacity to reinvent themselves to their and their audiences benefit. Although further adventures were taken on Think Tank, 13 was a summit that could not be bettered.
For any Blur fan, 21 is essential and the bonus discs reveal some gems and offer opportunities to rediscover hard to find tracks like the pastoral psychedelia of ‘Woodpigeon’ or hear an early demo of ‘Beetlebum’ minus its famous hook. These are economically tough times, but this is worth saving some money for if you possibly can as 21 is a magnificent testament to the work of Albarn, Coxon, James, and Rowntree.