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How Blur’s Self-Titled Album Laid Britpop To Rest
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How Blur’s Self-Titled Album Laid Britpop To Rest

Proving there was life after Britpop, Blur’s self-titled album defied all expectations of what the band were capable of.

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Released two years after Country House helped them claim victory in the “Battle Of Britpop”, Blur’s self-titled album expanded the group’s scope beyond Old Blighty, as they decamped to Iceland for recording sessions and took in a transatlantic influence which would earn them significant success in the US. With it came a complete rethinking of what Blur could be at the end of the 90s, propelling them far beyond English whimsy and social commentary to ensure their continued relevance as the 20th century came to a close.

Listen to Blur’s self-titled album here.

“I wanted to scare people again”

With their fame-building trio of mid-90s albums, Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife and The Great Escape, Blur had cemented themselves as heroes of homegrown pop, pin-up cover stars for magazines from NME to Smash Hits, and purveyors of subversive chart hits which took a sardonic look at social mores while also placing the group right at the centre of contemporary British culture. By the time they came to record their fifth album, however, throughout the second half of 1996, they were exhausted by the media attention, bored with their tabloids-fuelled rivalry with Oasis and weighed down by the expectation of having to outdo themselves all over again. The solution: rebuild Blur from the ground up and challenge all assumptions of what the band were capable of.

“I wrote Damon a letter just before we recorded Blur,” guitarist Graham Coxon later told music critic and Blur biographer Stuart Maconie, explaining the crossroads he felt the band had reached. “I said I wanted to scare people again… The letter worked.”

“I can write brilliant observational pop songs all day long, but you’ve got to move on”

Across their previous albums, the group had worked to an increasingly rigid framework, recording songs that frontman and chief songwriter Damon Albarn brought in, practically readymade before sessions had started. For their self-titled album, however, Blur began feeling their way through new material in the studio, working up songs together in a way they hadn’t since forming as Seymour in the late 80s. “It was the first time we sort of jammed,” Coxon later recalled, adding that the group were more accustomed to acting “quite white-coaty” during recording sessions, as though they were “in a laboratory”. This time around, however, the four bandmates would “actually feel our way through just playing whatever came to our minds and editing, which was really exciting”.

For Albarn, the change was welcome: “I can sit at my piano and write brilliant observational pop songs all day long, but you’ve got to move on,” he told Select magazine. After years of rejecting any notions of incorporating US influences into Blur’s sound, he began to take seriously Coxon’s insistence that Blur widen their sonic palette and look for inspiration in the culture that had once left them feeling homesick while touring their debut album, Leisure.

“I was always trying to mess around and be noisy and more exploratory with guitars because I was listening to the Americans,” Coxon reflected to Record Collector magazine, 15 years after the release of Blur’s self-titled album. Recalling his preference for using “guitars that had brittle sounds” on earlier songs such as The Great Escape’s He Thought Of Cars, the guitarist added: “English pop guitarists were pretty dull. I was always trying to get some Pavement or Sonic Youth thing going on.”

“Musically, it’s the most accomplished thing the band have done”

Moving recording sessions from London to Reykjavík, Iceland, where Albarn had found a refuge from the pressures of Britpop, the group embraced advances in studio technology that helped them completely reconfigure their sound, and they began constructing abstract soundbeds and piecing songs together from multiple takes. Writing in his memoir, Bit Of A Blur, bassist Alex James recalled how the group’s longtime producer, Stephen Street (The Smiths, Morrissey) had acquired a state-of-the-art computer programme that enabled recordings to be “edited, slowed down, speeded up, reversed, quantised and cut and pasted together very easily”.

The new album’s eventual closer, the six-minute Essex Dogs, was the most telling example of this, built as it was around a motorised-sounding stop-start riff which seemed to threaten collapse at any moment, and which was layered with a looped drum beat, doomy effects and other found sounds with which Blur assuredly laid their history as a straight-up guitar band to rest. “Musically, it’s probably the most accomplished thing the band have done, with playing,” James concluded. “Those are never the ones people remember, though.”

Not that Blur’s self-titled album wasn’t without memorable songs – rather, finding a meeting-point between their restriction-free experimentation and Albarn’s inbuilt knack for writing perfect pop music, the record featured a number of immediate contenders among the best Blur songs, not least its cryptic opener, Beetlebum.

“If it felt right, we decided that we wouldn’t tidy it up”

Setting out the new album’s stall with a pleasingly loose and scuzzy guitar riff that wore Coxon’s alt-rock influences with pride, Beetlebum was anchored by a typically bouncy Alex James bassline, while Albarn, who had previously written songs as if he were observing the world through characters torn right from Middle England headlines – Colin Zeal (Modern Life Is Rubbish), Tracy Jacks (Parklife), Mr Robinson (The Great Escape) – stepped forward with his most personal lyrics to date, rooted not in narrative but in a desire to express his feelings: “And when she lets me slip away/She turns me on and all my violence’s gone/Nothing is wrong/I just slip away and I am gone.”

Later admitting that it was “about drugs, basically” – specifically experiences with heroin – Albarn explained how Beetlebum reflected the group’s newfound refusal to let perfectionism get in the way: “I’m not sure what a Beetlebum is. It’s just a word I sang when I played the song to myself. I asked the others if I should change it, but they said no. If it felt right, we decided that we wouldn’t tidy it up like we’ve done in the past.” Any anxieties over how Blur’s fanbase would react to the song were soon put to bed when, released as their new album’s lead single at the end of January 1997, it hit No.1 in the UK.

Other songs that made up Blur’s self-titled album were more emotionally direct, with M.O.R. – which cheerfully copped a chorus lyric and melody from David Bowie’s 1979 hit Boys Keep Swinging – speaking as much to the group’s determination to outlast their Britpop tag (“Fall into fashion/Fall out again/We stick together/Because it never ends”) as it did the commitment needed to make a romantic relationship go the distance. With heart-on-sleeve fragility, Graham Coxon also delivered his first Blur song of note, the careworn ballad You’re So Great, which brought everything he loved about lo-fi US indie-rock into the Blur framework and topped it off with a vulnerable vocal he only felt comfortable singing while sitting beneath a table with the studio lights turned out. The group’s growing confidence with letting their rough edges show also came through on Country Sad Ballad man, in which James’ bass and Coxon’s guitar seem to be in a fight for supremacy over which is in the correct tuning.

“We thrashed it out, I just put loads of pedals on it”

If Death Of A Party – which had originally been demoed as far back as Modern Life Is Rubbish – offered arguably the most socio-political moment on the record, surveying as it did the wreckage of the early-90s AIDS crisis, Look Inside America found Albarn reconsidering how he felt about the US during that era, from the vantage point of a man who has made peace with the grind of trying to break his band on the other side of the Atlantic: “Look inside America/She’s alright, she’s alright/Sitting out the distance/But I’m not trying to make her mine.”

By accident or design, Blur’s self-titled album gained the group significant notice stateside when Song 2, picked as the record’s second single, hit No.6 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart, going four places higher in the UK. At the end of the year, it was hailed by NME as the second-best song of 1997. Originally demoed as an acoustic tune with a wolf whistle in place of the now iconic “Whoo-hoo!” chorus, whether it was a direct attempt to beat US rock groups at their own game, or a more playful comment on how easy Blur felt it was to make grunge music, Song 2 went straight for the jugular with a no-fuss drum beat, radio-baiting guitar riff and that euphoric chorus.

Soon to be heard on TV and computer-game soundtracks, as well as blasting from stereos on both sides of the Atlantic, the song was, in Alex James’ assessment, “the simplest thing we’ve ever done, and the quickest”, with drummer Dave Rowntree playing a straight-ahead beat and Coxon playing the off-beat on the side of a separate drum, before putting his guitar into overdrive through a homemade distortion box for the chorus. “We thrashed it out, I just put loads of pedals on it,” Coxon later told Record Collector.

Though Coxon felt it was “way too extreme” for the group’s record label, Blur presented it to their label head as their new album’s second single, “as a bit of a test of whether he was on our wavelength”. “He sat there grinning – ‘Definitely! Definitely a single!’” the guitarist recalled.

“They wanted to make a record that would help keep the band together”

If Song 2 was the most fuss-free example of where Blur now found themselves, their self-titled album also offered hints of where they would soon be heading. With a breakdown that again dials into David Bowie’s interstellar frequency – this time, Space Oddity – Strange News From Another Star hinted at the freeform arrangements that would characterise some of the songs on their next album, 13, another record which would be created in the piecemeal fashion the group had now mastered.

Meanwhile, Theme From Retro straddled the end-of-the-pier-style instrumentals of the Blur of old while also bringing in dubby effects which Damon Albarn would more thoroughly explore when he released Gorillaz’s debut album three years later. For Albarn himself, the carefree-sounding On Your Own, with its use of the early-80s Roland TR-606 drum machine, was, he felt with hindsight, “one of the first ever Gorillaz tunes”. “It was one of the first demos I did for this album, and I was just far more aggressive in the way I put it down on tape,” he explained to Stuart Maconie at the time. “I was far more uncompromising in using weirder sounds.”

Released on 10 February 1997, and soon topping the UK charts and scoring platinum sales, Blur’s self-titled album was received by Rolling Stone as “a record that inhabits current American rock biases as cogently and intelligently as Parklife corralled the last few decades of British rock”. But while it wasn’t Britpop in the contemporary sense, the album’s art-rock sensibility and dedication to forging ahead into new creative territory was undeniably connected to British pop music history, placing the group in a linage of disparate but forward-thinking British bands that includes Roxy Music and New Order. With a cover depicting a hospital patient being rushed away on a gurney, it was also exactly the album Blur needed at that moment – a cure for the Britpop hangover, and perhaps the shot in the arm they sought in order to survive the end of the 20th century.

As producer Stephen Street reflected in Uncut over a decade later: “Blur had decided that commercial pressures and writing hit singles wasn’t going to be the main consideration any more.” Creatively and personally, they needed more from the group. To The Observer, Street – who wouldn’t work with the band again until their 2015 reunion album, The Magic Whip – affirmed: “They wanted to make a record that would help keep the band together.”

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