Friday, August 15, 2008

No Escape: Blurgatory

The main single had the refrain "Blow me out, I am so sad, I don't know why". The second single was a National Lottery happy-clappy terrace anthem about a Substance D-type drug used by the government to pacify its people. Months later they were recording "Essex Dogs".

Many accused Blur's fourth studio album of harbouring all the trappings of Britpop excess, from garish over-production to tastelessly pompous songwriting. It was also claimed that the band had failed to progress from their "epochal" state-of-the-nation report Parklife. My argument is that not only did they progress significantly to produce a far superior album, both musically and in sentiment, but that they used excess for their own magnificently twisted ends; any excess that can be heard in The Great Escape represents the lurid race against mortality for material self-improvement that this fine album completely skewers.

The key to this achievement is, as it can only be, the music itself. Parklife for all its troubled message centres, harmless lows and denuded civil servants was at worst a cautiously optimistic record, whose truly hedonistic sympathies were betrayed by the upbeat, major-key emphasis throughout, relatively uncomplicated song-structures, and joyous, kinetic front cover. Blur grew up a lot over the next couple of years. Once the willing triers, now they found themselves atop the throne, their absolute desire to innovate in conflict with the necessity to give the bawling masses what they wanted. Another Britpop record was mandatory. The manner in which it was delivered, however, would both undermine the flagrantly blind optimism of the shallow "movement" (which Parklife was in part guilty for), and ensure that Blur would never have to make another Britpop record again.

But, the music. It is garish. "Stereotypes" opens with some of the ugliest, most needlessly flashy keyboard chords ever committed to disc. Many of the songs have big brassy horn sections, and Albarn is at his snarliest. It sounds aggressive. Many believe it sounds tacky. I dispute that; a song like "Fade Away" isn't so much tacky as fabulously diseased. The minor-key or even off-key ska cycle repeating into grand ad nauseam, with those ghastly vocal harmonies. It's horrific. Even the nominally upbeat songs like "It Could Be You" or the brilliant "Dan Abnormal" are nakedly ironic and jeering. They're just too garish, too rich. The arrangements in these songs are actually pretty dense and complex. Coxon complained that his guitar-parts weren't inventive or interesting enough on this album. That's because by and large this is Albarn's mission to destroy Britpop from within, so that his band might express themselves a little more freely on later records (he even named one of the tracks after himself, as you may have just noticed, taking his persona down with the ship). I know I'm reading a narrative into the whole situation from the comfort of retrospect, but that's certainly how it seems to me.

And I haven't even mentioned the openly depressed songs on this record. "He Thought Of Cars", "Entertain Me", "Yuko & Hiro". The former is notable for some sonic interplay that genuinely conveys illness, the rot of sweeping horrid keyboards against harsh guitar bombs. The second is the final nail in Parklife's coffin, taking that album's flagship tune and doing desperate things with it, only to end up a vastly superior song. And the final one of the three is one of the best songs Blur ever wrote, flat-out. It's a delicate, heartbreaking ballad to loneliness in the modern age, underpinned by a sense of subservience to an inexorable system, and graced with broken-sounding yet beautiful keyboards, a trick Grandaddy would later attempt with similarly spectacular results.

There are other songs I'd love to speak about at length, like how "Mr. Robinson's Quango" doesn't appear to know what a verse-chorus structure is, let alone making its mind up on whether to be a laddish Britpop-boogie singalong or a minor-key lament, or how "Best Days" is the sliest dissection of numbing middle-class panic (replete with ornate pianos and subtly harsh processed drums) to emerge from the era. I feel I've made my point, however. The signs are all there that this is both Britpop (as we knew it)'s apotheosis and melting-point. This is the suicide-note of a lottery winner. The bank-statement of a 5-minute celebrity. OK so they got Red Ken to narrate a track. What gives? In this hell-ride, even chummy endorsements from prominent social figures get blasted into space by sickly melodicas. It is perhaps intended that nobody actually gets out of The Great Escape unharmed. Even Blur. Fortunately for Albarn, there was no cell to go back to, no ball and mitt to endlessly hurl against a wall in the name of Britpop.


Webby said...

"I feel I've made my point, however."

Er, have you? Do you like it or not? I'm still not sure whether you do.

Marcello Carlin said...

We really need to be getting past "either/or" at this late stage.

louis said...

Yeah, er, for the record I love the album (as you can probably tell from the article), but a passionate exegesis need not concern a record one has particularly strong qualitative feelings about. Whether I like it or not (as if to make that yes/no absolute the focus of my article) is moot.

AaronM said...

Great writeup of a classic album.
You got the point of the record exactly.
Suburban despair on record.