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It’s Blur’s sixth album, not its 13th. But it has 13 songs, and they’re stranger than the ones we’ve heard from the group beforeeven though Blur’s career is past the point when it could take a truly unpredictable turn. Though 13 is being called a “space rock” record, it’s really an extension of the band’s new experimentalism, its interest in “slacker rock,” involving stretched-out jams and more scarred soundscapes than we could have imagined back in the days of trim, well-dressed Brit-pop. Blur breaks away from its straightforward verse-chorus pop for a more spontaneous writing style, which suggests that the boys have tired of repeating the confident Hunky Dory magic of “Beetlebum,” from their self-titled record. 13 marks the completion of their departure, and the transformation itself is engaging. As a musical laboratory, 13 produces bizarre, wonderful results, marred only by a few faulty concoctions.
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You’ve got to give some props to the quartet of Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree, who were highly touted in Europe before they ever established an American beachhead. They struck out on their own at one point, after releasing their debut, Leisure, during the shoegazer days. Their unfashionable (at the time) tour of British pop music, Modern Life Is Rubbish, crafted a stiff European counterpoint to the primal, elemental angst of dominant grunge and post-punk. It’s an early cornerstone, as is the single “Pop Scene,” for what’s now regarded as the ’90s Brit-pop revival. The band drew in bits of XTC songcraft (actually aborting an album session with Andy Partridge), Kinks-y social critiques, disco (in Parklife’s “Girls & Boys”), and snotty Buzzcocks-y punk when it chose. Blur made its next two albums, Parklife and The Great Escape, roaming that same territory, often with an exaggerated cockney accent. Albarn became an acerbic observersometimes keen, often bratty, given to insights on class that sounded sometimes cynical and elitist even when they were on target, picking at society’s nasty sores like Martin Amis in London Fields. The band’s rivalry with “laddists” Oasis peaked with the release of Blur’s “Country House” and Oasis’ “Roll With It.” Though Blur’s single grabbed the No. 1 spot first, Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory had a longer shelf life, eventually making the band huge in the states. Rather than pit itself once again against the rougherbut in some ways more sympatheticOasis, the group reinvented itself.
Eternally youthful and shamelessly trendy, Blur has managed to move on. It took a pre-emptive departure from the Brit-pop corridor on its last record, Blur, as though predicting that the house it had rebuilt might collapse under the weight of its hype. With its ear to the experimental American underground, the band name-checked everyone from Beck to Tortoise to Pavement and the requisite Krautrock deities. The raw, sometimes aggressive record and “Song 2,” its nowhere anthem, put the band back on the MTV teen radar and propelled the band to commercial success: Its “whoo-hoo” was soon introducing Starship Troopers and Intel chips.
13 opens with “Tender,” a long, rootsy spiritual that features a gospel choir. It’s a warm nod but lingers long enough to make you wonder if it might have needed J. Spaceman’s touch. Thank goodness, 13 shows itself less an homage and more of a freakout. “Coffee & TV” is Graham Coxon’s song, and it’s a lightweight, intimate, questioning indie recipe, catchier than anything on his very personal and sometimes careless solo album, The Sky Is Too High. Coxon gives the false impression that he’s just tossing off ditties while flipping channels. Oddly, it’s the most straightforward song on the album, though written by the guitarist who felt confined by radio-friendly structure. “Bugman” is simply damaged, a caustic synthesis of Blur’s old and new incarnations. “Swamp Song” is the sort of deranged creation that shouldn’t work for this rehearsed band at all. It sounds less like a communiqué from the halls of madness than a vain wish to sound spontaneous. When Albarn says, “Gimme space brain,” it’s hard to believe that he’s become dangerous, salmon fishing at his Icelandic retreat and all; more likely, he imagines himself to be a kook. Blur takes a stab at loopy punk with “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.,” sung for the “teenage maniacs,” that is, the newly acquired “Song 2” audience.
“Battle” furnishes a better realized version of 13’s promise. It has gorgeous moments. The hand of producer William Orbit (Madonna’s Ray of Light) appears more evident as the song nose-dives from lightness to abrasion. It sputters in and out, introducing the psychedelia halfway throughstructures disintegrate and the instrument panel fries. “Mellow Song,” a folk lament, segues into a dubby acid-soaked section; it reeks of Beck. “Trailerpark” would be more appealing if it didn’t feature the cringe-worthy line “Lost my girl to the Rolling Stones” in a silly drawl.
Orbit helps the group accentuate the oddness of its creationa change from the clinical perfection of its Stephen Street-produced albums. Surely it’s Orbit’s editing that gives 13 its feeling of organized upheaval. This is a specific kind of strange record by a band that has already made its pop statement. There’s little left for them to say; the boys are pretty wiggy and trying to get somewhere elseand therein lies its edge. But the record doesn’t deal in the studied orchestrated rocketry of Mercury Rev. The band’s tethered too close to the space station by quarter-inch cables. Don’t expect anything classic.
In experimenting, there’s little lyrical room for exploring the mundane. Copious amounts of strangeness raise the ante for pop oddity. The druggy “Trimm Trabb” is loaded with effect, proving that songwriting talent can be as much about saying nothing as beating the listener over the head with insight. Dosing away without any cares and the distorted sense of time that comes with it are always amusing, especially when dubbed and twisted. But “Caramel” builds into something grander. Confused mutterings give way to shuffling drums and stormy noises, though the band sculpts its surreal sound-surfing too well for it to pass for improvisation. “No Distance Left to Run” closes the record with romantic regret that’s more emotional than the pastiche of “To the End,” on Parklife.
The lads walk the plank and take the plunge. There’s not much on the record that really resembles The Great Escape, where diverse instrumentation and too much irony conspired to make a less rocking album than what their Manchester rivals delivered. 13 shows the results of the lads trusting their inclinations toward the strange, going back to pre-Brit-pop psychedelic cupboard, and letting the contemporary influences flow, even at the expense of a once-recognizable signature.CP