Blur: Why people still care about the Britpop icons
It's an uncanny experience, watching the preening pin-ups of your youth mature into grizzled rock icons. That is the process Blur unofficially completed this week, as the craggy Britpoppers announced their first new album in over a decade and the Internet fell into a bit of a tizzy.
How odd it was to observe the group seated alongside World's Most Annoying Presenter Zane Lowe at a hastily thrown-together press conference in London. They seemed jowly and middle-aged, with the demeanour of men who perhaps couldn't quite focus on the task at hand because they had to zip to a parent-teacher meeting straight afterwards. Certainly it was a far-cry from their Cool Britannia heyday, when, judging by their press shots, they never left the house without colour co-cordinated vintage Adidas, their hair mussed just-so.
Back then, you might easily have mistaken Blur for chart pranksters with pretensions above their station. With their biggest albums, Park Life (1994) and The Great Escape (1995), they embraced the role of romantic oiks. Lyrics favoured by frontman Damon Albarn include 'la-la-la' and 'oi!' (he loved that one especially) while their world view, if it could be described as such, felt like a sneering updating of The Smiths.
Then again, for a mere pop ensemble they could be tellingly dark. On songs such as Tracy Jacks and Charmless Man (the Moz riff entirely deliberate, we're sure), Albarn cast a caustic eye over the lot of the average Brit and found them mostly a tragic and lacking bunch, small people living go-nowhere lives and self-medicating with booze and empty sex. Even on an aggressively commercial track such as Country House (their first number one) there was always a hint of a sneer. They were bang in the middle of mainstream - but could not bear to think of themselves as belonging there.
Maybe this explains why their music has endured – even their naffer moments (and there were a few circa The Great Escape) today feel fresher, more vital than anything their peers put out. It's why people still care and did not cringe as Blur announced comeback album The Magic Whip - which, ought, by rights to have been the response when a heritage act declares it is putting out new music for the first time in a nearly decade and a half.
The truth is Blur were never truly a rock band. Certainly not in the Oasis sense of smashing down the doors of polite society and causing an unholy ruckus. But nor were they in the difficult tradition of British art-rock, as exemplified by Pink Floyd and, later, Radiohead. Really, they were a pop group, always catchy, frequently playful. A kind of flightiness inhabited their best music – you can hear it in the faux-disco groove of Girls and Boys, and in the student-disco lurchings of Song 2.
Added to their appeal was the soap-opera infighting that is the mark of any band truly worth our long-term attention. By the late 90s, they were thoroughly burned out. When guitarist Graham Coxon walked out at the start of the recording of what came to be thought of as their final LP, 2003's Think Tank, it was less because of artistic differences than straightforward exhaustion, as he told this writer several years ago.
"I don't think there was CREATIVE tension really. There was just tension. You had four pretty tired people. The communication had broken down for quite a few years. We'd been working so hard, we'd lost the thread a little bit. I suppose we had lost sight of who we were in relation to each other and where we were from. I think that's the music business. It does that to everybody to a certain extent. We desperately needed a break. Unfortunately it took me leaving the band for us to get that.
"You can't simply tell your record company you need five, six years off. They'll go 'er, why?' You almost had to split up to have a break. I suppose that's what it looks like now, in hindsight. At the time there was a lot of different stuff going on I had a one year old baby daughter. . I was struggling with tiredness and fatigue. The band was over worked. A lot was happening."
Undeniably, in Blur's heyday not everyone appreciated the quartet for who and what they were. They were often dismissed as pretty boys – probably on account of Albarn's habit of pouting and fluttering his lashes whenever a camera pointed in his direction. And despite the fact they were all stoutly lower-middle class – none of the four were privately educated – many saw them as standing in opposition to Oasis' street-fighting hooligan rock.
With time, such prejudices have fallen away and we have come to appreciate Blur as populist English tunesmiths in the tradition of The Beatles and The Kinks. Nowadays, it's difficult to listen to 90 percent of Britpop without cringing a little (yes – Echobelly really were THAT terrible). Blur's songbook has, in contrast, grown better with age – Albarn's ballads especially. When he performed To The End and This Is A Low (as with Glen Hansard's Falling Slowly the lyrics inspired by the shipping forecast) at Dublin's Royal Hospital Kilmainham in 2013, there was little doubt but that you were witnessing one of the great British pop writers up close. Here's hoping the new album can hold water with their finest moments – they have surely given themselves a lot to live up to.