Where Was Blur When They Were Getting High?
Copyright © 1997 by David Reitzes
Though Blur has been around for years, Damon Albarn and Co. are best known in America for engaging in a juvenile press feud with Oasis last year in their native England, where both groups are equally popular. The typical rock star egos of all involved are somewhat at odds with the music both groups specialize in, which is your basic rock 'n' roll fluff. That either band should achieve success is neither unexpected nor unwarranted: We all crave fluff and should do so unapologetically. But even fluff has its standards.
If Blur and Oasis want to foster the impression that they're the Beatles and Stones of the '90s, they should be aware that, as with the Beatles and Stones, the comparison only draws attention to each group's shortcomings. After all, while Jagger and Richards were no Lennon-McCartney, Lennon and McCartney were also no Jagger-Richards; meaning that as much as I love Sgt. Pepper -- which may as well be the Magna Carta for all the historical weight placed upon it -- it withers beside the raw heat of "Gimmie Shelter" or "Sympathy for the Devil."
Blur's fifth album is self-titled, connoting a certain definitive quality. What Blur (Virgin) actually suggests is a band in transition, most evident from their sudden leanings towards American alternative sounds, with Pavement an obvious influence. The guitars are electronically clipped, distorted, stretched and tortured, while the overall production is an intriguing hi-fi British translation of American lo-fi. Albarn's vocals range from the Ramones-like shouting of "Chinese Bombs" to the falsetto woo-oo's of "Song No. 2," the mean average being the wastoid drawl of "You're So Great" and "Look Inside America."
The problem remains that Blur has little to say. While certain American bands line their pockets with calculated displays of overwrought emotion, Blur seems stuck in a mode of calculated calculation -- not just a self-conscious avoidance of emotion, but of self-conscious self-consciousness.
The most flagrant example is "Look Inside America," a heinous day-in-the-life-of-a-rock-star whine -- if only it were a joke -- where the feeling the band seems most in touch with is its own boredom. But all is not lost: the genuinely moving "Death of a Party" succeeds in meaningfully expressing the ennui "America" unintentionally parodies.
It should come as no surprise that the band sounds most assured when they attempt an activity that they -- unlike Oasis -- seem to usually disdain -- when they, well, rock. Form and substance can be difficult to distinguish in music; a compelling hook or a simple spurt of energy can make or break a track like "MOR," where buzzsawing guitars lend urgency to a lyric ("Here comes a low/Here comes a high") actually threatens to approach insight.
The group's often cloying irony suddenly begins to work for them, a la Pavement, when they inflate the mock-rebellious "On Your Own" with the antiquated mock-rebellious "Wild Thing" riff. Or when they kick off the album with the strongly Oasis-like "Beetlebum" -- a catchy piece of bubblegum alternapop with a title pun so obvious it's been overlooked Purloined Letter-style by the music press en masse. (Albarn claims it's a nonsense word.) Or when they employ warped guitar sounds and mutant reverb effects to animate the song structures to which they stubbornly cling -- and more power to them -- injecting grit into even their most atmospheric pieces, such as "Theme from Retro" -- an appropriate title for a meaty slice of lounge-inspired mood music -- Portishead with fuzz guitars.
It is, in fact, the sand infiltrating Blur's pop machinery that sets the band apart from its competition, Albarns' disquieting leer edging them as close to Rolling Stones territory as they're likely to get. A better Oasis-Blur analogy than Beatles-Stones, come to think of it, is Beatles-Kinks. Ray Davies accepted long ago that the Kinks' subversively ironic sensibilities would never enthrall the masses as did the Beatles and Stones' murkily rebellious stance. Blur's cynicism suggests mere flashes of Kinks-like genius, but it may yet be the band's saving grace -- if it doesn't sink them first.
Oasis are as good right now as they will ever be. Blur, on the other hand, has five albums behind them, and I still say they could surprise us yet. The new disc is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. And if I damn it with faint praise, it's still far more compelling than either of Oasis' hit CDs, both of which I frisbeed long ago. Blue may be little more than high-quality fluff, but it's nevertheless a keeper.
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