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[Virgin; 1999]

By ; February 14, 2011 

Purchase at: Insound (Vinyl) | Amazon (MP3 & CD) | iTunes | MOG

Blur were always a very British band. They represented the Zeitgeist of the 90s, especially with Parklife and The Great Escape. Although I never lived through the main Blur frenzy – I was still a young kid when those albums came out – I later snatched up their ‘greatest hits’ collection in the form of Blur: The Best of. Initially, I found myself only half-enjoying some of these songs. The stuff of their earlier days, “Country House,” and “Charmless Man” for example, didn’t quite resonate with me as much as I felt that they should. In fact, bar “The Universal” and my guilty pleasure in the form of “She’s so High,” I didn’t really understand what the big deal about Blur as a band was.

After making it my mission to hunt down every Blur album I eventually ended up going on a journey of self discovery, almost as a personal behest to prove to myself that I could like these guys. So I started at the logical place with Leisure and then worked my way up, finishing with Think Tank. A lot of Blur’s final album to me was messy, with neither the excellent Rowntree or James able to salvage what was essentially a Damon solo project; but the same could not be said for their penultimate disc: 13.To this day, 13 for me remains Blur’s defining moment and their magnum opus. Nothing before, nor since, released by Blur has come close to the levels of brilliance and experimentalism seen here.

“Tender” is the track that most people are going to be familiar with on 13. It kicks the album off as a gospel-tinged country number that is quite unlike anything from their previous albums; one of the longest Blur songs, but not at all exhausting. Coxon makes this song with his inspired playing, and he and Albarn both take it in turns to deliver some of the best vocal performances of their careers. What amazed me at first about “Tender” was how immediate it is in execution, showing off a new sound that Blur had adopted without restraint. What was more compelling to me, however, is that “Tender” is just the tip of the iceberg.

“Bugman” sounds nothing at all like the album opener, and seems to create a completely hazy world of chaotic noise, especially in its latter half. It’s this rugged sense of adventure that had been absent from all of Blur’s previous albums, in my opinion, that I truly embraced. Blur had proven that they could craft a brilliant pop song, and then almost dwarf it with a track that could never be described as radio-friendly. It’s surprising, then, that “Coffee & TV” follows, which is akin to someone within the studio pulling at the musical reigns to prevent this packhorse from straying too far from the established path. Arguably one of Blur’s best tracks, “Coffee & TV” gave Coxon his time to shine, and never throughout Blur’s career was his presence felt so much. It was the first time that we heard Coxon actually sing properly, and he was easily a solid match for Damon. The subdued and sorrowful nature of this song popped up again throughout the album, especially during tracks like “No Distance Left to Run,” which goes down as one of Blur’s most contemplative musings, invoking emotions that Blur had simply never before shown they were capable of revealing.

Listening to 13 after experiencing almost all of Blur’s discography gave me a chance to truly appreciate the album in its entirety, and, perhaps more importantly, provided me with an opportunity to work out why I liked it more than their other albums. The music wasn’t necessarily tighter. In fact, certain tracks seem the opposite; completely incoherent to a wider whole, sometimes breaking the sombre mood entirely. I’m looking at you, “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” With its punky vocal delivery and lo-fi roots, this track shouldn’t at all work as a follow-up to the reflective melody and calmness of “1992,” and yet Blur pull it off flawlessly. I think that this brazen method of building layers of diverse sound between tracks is what makes 13 interesting: it lacks conventional structure, basking in its own oddity. It truly takes an impressive band to blend together not just different musical styles, but also entirely different moods and atmospheres, and throw them into the mixing pot seemingly at random only to yield positive results.

“Battle,” for example, is another track that exceeds six minutes, and it’s far less of a sing-along song than “Tender.” And yet, to me personally, the track could have easily been longer and I would not have grown bored with it. Yes, “Battle” may be an electronic-layered entity, and can even sound aggressive, but the vocal register makes it beautiful. Indeed, Damon seems to experiment a lot more on 13 with different vocal styles. He loses the accent that made him so iconic in tracks like “Parklife,” and instead drifts between hazy falsetto singing, to deep, almost spoken-word vocals.

Nothing on 13 is typical Blur. And perhaps, because of this, it’s unfair to call it Blur’s best record. So much of their discography is unlike 13 that to call it their best is to do an injustice to the great band that existed before they got all chaotic and weird. The Blur of the late 90s was certainly an incredibly different band to the early 90s Britpop sensations, and in my opinion this shift in sound was for the better. It’s a shame really that Coxon left soon after the release of 13, especially as he demonstrated his own worth in the band more so than ever before on this record. One could pine for the subsequent albums that Blur could have released had they stayed together, but with the friendly relations between the members in recent times, one can only hope that they’ll get back into the recording studio and create another albums worth of excellent music.

But we can also hope that there are some disputes along the way; the chaos and fractured nature of 13 that I have come to adore was surely a result of turbulent times within the band, and so I would not be at all surprised, nor disappointed, if there were a few tantrums and thrown water balloons in the studio during recording. Blur would need only to dry themselves off and channel that energy onto tape in order to create something once again as pleasing and surprising as 13.

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