Blur have had many close scrapes with pop superstardom, but have always managed to avoid the enormous success enjoyed by, for example, Brit-rock rivals Oasis. “Song 2” might have been the song of 1997, (perhaps you remember hearing it on the radio, or in the trailer for Starship Troopers, or as the theme song for the NHL on Fox, or in that Intel ad…) but they followed up its success by waiting two full years to release their least accessible album to date. Blur’s new album 13 is rambling, convoluted and ultimately brilliant.
Produced by William Orbit (Madonna’s Ray of Light), 13 shows entire sides of Blur we never knew existed, some marvelous surprises and some things that could have remained hidden. Gone for good, it seems, are the tightly produced, concise pop songs that filled 1994’s Parklife and 1995’s The Great Escape. In their place are much looser, messier and, it must be said, weirder songs.
Guitarist Graham Coxon asserted himself on Blur, and his influence is clearly stamped on 13 as well. His playing is consistently excellent, and frequently astonishing, as he creates whole unseen sonic landscapes with his guitar.
The album is, stylistically, Blur’s most eclectic, with songs ranging from up-tempo rockers to ethereal epics to touching ballads. The first single, “Tender,” is based on a country guitar riff by Coxon, and features the London Community Gospel Choir on the refrain. At seven minutes and forty seconds, the real marvel is that the song never grows old. It is a truly magnificent song that reminds us no matter how far afield Blur may roam, they can still craft some of the best melodies around.
“Coffee & TV,” written and sung by Coxon, is a catchy, strummy pop song, while the equally outstanding “Trimm Trabb” is a slower, moodier number that erupts in distortion.
Much has been made of Albarn’s personal life, specifically his breakup with longtime girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica, and the influence that event exerted on the writing of 13. Indeed, the album contains some of Albarn’s most direct and openly sentimental lyrics.
In “1992,” Albarn sings, “You’d love my bed/ you took the other instead.” The song derives its title from the fact that it was based around some demos Albarn recorded in 1992. It is also reputedly the year Albarn met Frischmann.
“No Distance Left to Run” is even more baldly sentimental. “It’s over,” croaks Albarn, “I knew it would end this way/ I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel/ that this life is the night/ and who settles down/ stays around, spends more time with you.” It is also one of the most beautiful songs Blur have ever produced.
But despite the wealth of outstanding material on 13, there are some blunders. The trip-hoppy ramble “Trailerpark” includes a haunting keyboard figure and infectious beat, but also subjects us to the inexplicable and somewhat embarrassing experience of Albarn blurting “Freestyle!” for no particular reason. Similarly incongruous is the descent of “Bugman” from churning guitars to a psychedelic coda showcasing Albarn’s falsetto as he wails, “Space is the place.” “Caramel” could be an excellent song if it were about half as long.
The awkward moments on 13, however, are the exceptions; most of the album is highly rewarding and continues to yield surprises on subsequent hearings. It is a complex and out-there album, and is not without its flaws, but it contains some of Blur’s best work.