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BLUR – 21

PLAYING AT THE CELEBRATORY CLOSING CONCERT OF THE OLYMPIC GAMES THIS WEEKEND SEEMS A NEAT AND FITTING FINISH-LINE FOR BRITISH GOLD-STANDARD BAND BLUR.
This 21-disc career-spanning box has been released to capitalise on the retiring four-piece’s heightened profile amidst a level of national triumphalism and cultural fervour not indulged since the Euro 96 tournament.
Which is, incidentally, roughly when Blur were at their commercial saturation point.
All seven studio albums are represented by two-disc expanded editions (which add b-sides and assorted rarities), there are five discs of unreleased demos, outtakes and radio session highlights, and a couple of live DVDs (featuring shows previously only released on VHS) pick up any slack. Not that there is, actually, very much slack to pick up…

From beginning (early demos and rehearsals, and then 1991’s LEISURE, youthfully confident and utterly flawed) to end (1999’s miasmic 13, befuddled and caught in early-30s cumulative stoner fug, followed by 2003’s THINK TANK, accomplished, questing and fresh), 21 is a delight.
There is some dross, of course, but this box is all about the wider context – the opportunity to chart the band’s development, the opportunity to hear the comic music-hall b-side GOT YER! shotgun the pretentious (and swooningly great) TO THE END, to hear the jumbo-jet fuck-you of SONG 2 roar through the salty and sad seaspray of THIS IS A LOW… Even when it’s annoying (I’m looking at you, COUNTRY HOUSE) there’s just so much of 21 that it remains fascinating and compelling, frequently verging on the astounding.
In attitude, it’s all very much of this land (even if geographically concentrated on the sprawl of London – references to the city, to the Underground, Portobello Road, Bow Bells and similarly noteworthy capital locations are like aural postcards sent throughout), but it’s the suburban moods and behaviours explored that are the real landmarks of this set.
That Blur occasionally presented something of a cartoon version of the nuances of British habit and culture is in no doubt – but they were almost always arch about it. A cutting word here, a funny turn of phrase there – we knew Damon Albarn could do this.
But he’s far greater at it than the memory suggests. The Blur frontman’s iron-fist-in-velvety-voiced-glove firmly and effortlessly grips the lyrical line shared by Ray Davies, Jam-era Paul Weller, early The Who, and Costello in his late 1970s pomp.
Close listening reveals that in pulling apart the psyche of these isles, Albarn’s lyrics are far crueller than they might at first appear. Some of the subtler, harsher, stabs slip in unnoticed, disguised by pop dynamics. Often, he’s slicing right through with amphetamine-eyed intelligence, his sharply bladed lines filled with self-deluding or vacuous or hypocritical or disgusting and perverse characters. It’s difficult not to assume Albarn is drawing us towards pronouncing impatient or intolerant judgement on all.
Equally, once or twice it’s quite pointless trying to gauge exactly what his standpoint is as he sets his sights but remains non-committal and morally ambivalent… Sometimes, thankfully, he can also be hugely sympathetic.
From the obliviously incorrectly dressed 17-year-old wannabe Ace-Face Mod JUBILEE to the grab-it-while-you’re-young package holiday shaggers of GIRLS AND BOYS, from the frustrated line-toeing civil servants TRACY JACKS and COLIN ZEAL to the middle-aged cross-dresser of STEREOTYPES, and on to the unknowingly sedated of THE UNIVERSAL, reduced to paying for doses of hope through government endorsed bingo rather than finding it in communion with others, Albarn’s vignettes are littered with characters who are dirty, delusional, disenfranchised, disconnected, dangerously close to the edge… Lots of words beginning with ‘d’  –  but never ‘dull’…
At times the scenarios are bleak and dour, a bit disturbing. At times they’re absolutely hilarious. In the first half of this box, these slices of broken Britain are usually always a great deal of fun – almost all, actually, set to truly engaging pop music, where unusual or clever or surprising things happen all over the place. It’s thrilling.
Later on, of course, it becomes much more esoteric, about expansive dynamics and art-house sonics than compacting of pop songwriting ideas. Throughout, though, Albarn and Graham Coxon’s propensity for knowing their way around a tune is stunning. As a performing unit, they are well served by ‘the other two’ – Alex James’ bass-playing is more nimble and imaginative than you have cause or desire to hope a smug cheese-maker’s would be, while Dave Rowntree is never less than perfunctory, and once or twice spectacular, on the drums.
Albarn’s voice can sometimes be painfully mannered – he goes through a period of being prone to overdo the Cockernee – but, equally, sometimes it can be brittle and tear-jerking or powerfully brusque. As can Coxon’s guitar, veering from the incendiary to the liquid, the violently aggravating to the generously tender. I counted four occasions when listening to this box set chronologically that I asked “He can’t get better than this, can he?”, only to later arrive at the answer “Yes”.
1992’s MODERN LIFE IS RUBBISH and 1994’s PARKLIFE are the benchmark albums.
Both are packed with great singles (the pilled-up quart-sized Quadrophenia of FOR TOMORROW, with its early morning London ice, and ‘Proper Bowie’ Bewlay Brothers references, and the warm Mott-The-Hoople jerk of CHEMICAL WORLD) and great songs that could have been singles (ADVERT, BADHEAD, and the XTC-meets-Julian-Cope whimsy of STARSHAPED).
The outtakes attached to these albums throw up some interesting oddities – a full band version of Alex James’ curio FAR OUT is as exhilarating as the ‘proper’ version is cute, a strutting demo version of PARKLIFE is infectiously gauche, and the extended instrumental playout at the climax of TO THE END (LA COMEDIE) is a gorgeously cinematic overlapping drop-off from the credits sequence into the first scene of a summery French comedy (in hindsight signposting at least a part of Albarn’s ambition and future activity).
But 1995’s THE GREAT ESCAPE is a disappointing half-low.
Occasionally laboured, Blur’s first post-stratosphere album has some great moments – the scathing STEREOTYPES and, of course, the aforementioned THE UNIVERSAL – possibly one of the most apocalyptically damning and beautiful songs ever recorded. With its chemically-numbed, hopelessly euphoric “… it really could happen” chorus, I’m sure this is what overwhelming sadness actually sounds like.
But the album, on the whole, is too long and self-indulgent and some of the songs are not up to the job of following career-high PARKLIFE. COUNTRY HOUSE sounds big and clever but despite the fun, it’s arrogant. Producer Stephen Street makes heavy work of it, possibly egged-on by a brashly confident Albarn intent on littering superfluous faux-PENNY LANE everything-including-the-kitchen-sinkisms about the place. It’s not that he’s not capable of fine examples of these ornamentations, it’s that he doesn’t seem to exercise any judgement or restraint, here. It’s an on-the-nose bet that not just the brass section was prone to toot during the recording.
A moderately radical change of direction for 1997’s BLUR (eponymously titled as a slate-cleaning mission statement, no doubt) had the arena-playing glossy grinners stripped back to expose the kind of naked DIY garage band who could fall out of the back of a transit van and fuck up the walls of your local club with one chord. SONG 2, of course, everyone knows. But the hot-hairdryer-in-the-eyes speed-rush of MOR, the junkie-grime of BEETLEBUM and the 1970 mini-psychedelia of STRANGE NEWS FROM ANOTHER STAR (again with the Proper Bowie – this time his SPACE ODDITY and MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD albums) are highlights. It’s an exceptional record.
Other than singles TENDER and COFFEE AND TV, album 13 (1999) just sounds fractured and, frankly, ill. That’s no criticism as it’s hugely affecting.
It’s hardly surprising it’s so damaged – Albarn’s relationship with Elastica singer Justine Frischmann had slipt away from him. The self-help single TENDER delicately describes his struggle to move on, and quite movingly so, while NO DISTANCE LEFT TO RUN pulls the stitches out. On other occasions the pain is purely sonic – BUGMAN is virtually unlistenable for its sickening vomit of noise. The heartache or the noise – or both – make it difficult to breathe throughout, and there is very little air on this relentlessly broken album.
2003’s THINK TANK, with Coxon out of the door and off to solo musings, saw the band struggling to get to grips with being a three-piece – the guitarist does contribute in part but had left by the time recordings were completed. Blur, though, managed one of their greatest singles during the sessions – the crisply produced OUT OF TIME, with its eastern nuances, driving bass and skittering rhythms.
Tucked away right at the end is an early version of UNDER THE WESTWAY which, in re-recorded version and as their recent sign-off single, encapsulates everything important about the band and their continued development. An almost spectral wake of a song, it is a beautiful high point at which to acknowledge we have made it to the end…
21 doesn’t quite contain everything Blur ever released – puzzlingly, the Japanese edition has ten more previously unreleased tracks than the UK edition and, even then, there are still several officially released bits and pieces missing. There is no representation of 1998’s little-known BUSTIN’ + DRONIN’ remix album here, for instance, and nor are Blur’s charity compilation covers of Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army and The Who’s Substitute featured. So, regardless of the aesthetic pleasure of thinking you are holding a treasurable once-dispersed-but-now-reassembled museum piece, it’s actually an illusion… which makes it a little difficult to work out who this box is aimed at, with its price tag of £150.
Casual users will feel overwhelmed by the sheer size and weight of the set, despite its appeal as an artefact and, almost certainly, daunted by the fact that there are hundreds of songs here. 2009’s reasonably offbeat toe-dipper MIDLIFE, or 2000’s BEST OF BLUR would possibly serve them better… The heavily addicted will already have copies of everything so-far issued, and only be interested in this new box for the myriad unreleased moments – though (only marginally) inferior quality versions of many of these demo versions have surfaced on the internet over the years (and, in fact, several that could have been included have not).
So in this summer of Britain selling itself to the world, it has to be the moneyed amongst London’s international visitors. Forced to make their way to the Olympic Park through a corporate sugar-bauble of a shopping centre (the kind Blur would have sung about), they may be on the lookout for some sort of deep listening über-UK (someone call Morrissey) souvenir. They could actually do worse than take home this capsuled two-decade dissection of brutal, buttoned-up and beautiful Britain.