As documented in Alex James’ book Bit of a Blur, Blur were a band who craved large-scale success. On debut Leisure, this led to them adopting the baggy sound of the time, with moderate rewards.
However, infused by a sense of frustration at contemporary American dominance in alternative music and scarred by an insufferable tour of the States, the band then created a couple of idiosyncratic and tune-packed albums with heavy influence from British music, culture and lifestyle that have rightfully attained classic-status (Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife).
Then the desire for dominance went too far with the third of the trilogy, The Great Escape, over-packing the character songs and lacking soul; though there are exceptions (Best Days, The Universal).
However, the late nineties saw them find new life as they reacted with a couple of challenging, art rock albums that this time took their lead from US alternative rock bands like Pavement (Blur and 13)
By 2003’s Think Tank Blur was starting to split, only fleetingly featuring influential guitarist Graham Coxon. Still enjoyable, the album had the worldly feel found in many of Damon Albarn’s solo and side projects.
When I saw Blur at Glastonbury 2009, they had reformed and I was unsure what to expect. I had seen them at Glastonbury 1998 when the band were reinventing itself and their set was almost wilfully challenging, to prove their credibility. Coupled with the mud that year, it wasn’t brilliantly received.
However, in 2009 the atmosphere was something else. A crowd both large in size and euphoric in mood welcomed a hit-packed set, all affirmed by the resounding call back of the “oh my baby…” refrain from Tender that carried into the night.
An emotional band reconvened several times for such moments of celebration until 2015’s The Magic Whip. Impressively recorded over a matter of days following a gig cancellation in Hong Kong and largely influenced by that part of the world on the band. This time it was Graham who did most of the post-recording work, in collaboration with career-long producer Stephen Street.
Wembley Stadium gig
Nothing from that particular album remained in the setlist when I saw Blur fulfil their ambition of playing Wembley Stadium (8 July) . Instead, the band picked heavily from those stellar early Britpop albums. Hence, the more angular moments that showcase Graham’s guitar talents (Oily Water), the straight-ahead punk (Advert) and the underplayed, cult classic (Villa Rosie) were plucked from Modern Life… And of course there are the big-hitters taken from Parklife (the likes of This is a Low and End of a Century).
And, theatrically rolling his eyes, Damon and co appear happy to tear through Country House whilst wearing a flat cap, mid-set. They then bring out Phil Daniels for Parklife from the type of onstage tent typically found at a seaside resort. To be fair, The Great Escape’s Stereotypes is also an absolute blast. The nostalgia continues in the encore, when Damon performs Girls and Boys in a custom-made Fila jacket, like the one he originally sported in it’s video.
This is however interspersed with highlights from their later output. These include 13 album track Trimm Trabb, one of that album’s break-up songs that sees them at their art school best, and the beautiful Out Of Time, lead single from Think Tank. There are also the epic singles from those years, Beetlebum and Song 2, Tender and Coffee and TV. When Tender was sung back to Damon this year, he curled up on stage like a baby, as though the chorus was his bedtime blanket.
As with Glastonbury, the band were choked at the appreciation. “I don’t know why you stick with us” are Damon’s parting sentiments. But Blur are a special band, in my eyes, and at Wembley that day I’d seen a cross-generational crowd come together and sing their hearts out, rewarded with one of the greatest back catalogues in indie rock.
The Ballad of Darren
Their Wembley set contains only two moments from Blur’s new album The Ballad of Darren. It opens with the raucous St. Charles Square, in which Damon continues to repent for the Country House/Great Escape misstep as he confesses “I fucked up…every generation has its gilded posers”. Anthemic lead single The Narcissist, which addresses success and addiction, is in the en core.
Hearing the album in full some weeks later, the singles prove to be the most lively moments. The rest of the album has a more mellow quality that touches on typical themes from Blur’s cannon: the characters of the British Isles, the good and the bad sides of alcohol and the deeply sentimental relationship between the band members, particularly school friends Damon and Graham.
Damon, in reflective mood, penned the album whilst touring with Gorillaz. When offered to an inspired Graham, he feels he plays some of his best guitar on this album. This is evidenced on the sparkling riff to Barbaric and the cacophony of feedback that closes The Heights and the album as a whole. It’s pulled together by producer James Ford who has previously sprinkled his magic over Arctic Monkeys records and with Damon with Gorillaz, among many others.
With more immediate Blur being introduced in the first half of the album, the second half is nevertheless filled with some superb ballads. The best of which, Avalon, addresses that favoured topic – the band’s home country. Here Damon showcases one his most tender melodies, pleading “what’s the point in building Avalon, if you can’t be happy when it’s done?”. That is until Graham cuts in with a Modern life-esque guitar refrain and “grey-painted planes fly over on their way to war” and “there’s darkness everywhere”.
More consistent in sound and better in quality than The Magic Whip, The Ballad of Darren marks a warm and welcome midlife addition to the Blur catalogue. It’s the sound of a confident band which, a repertoire beloved to millions under their belt, is at peace with itself. “I know you think I must be lost now”, Damon sings on album highlight Far Away Island, “but I’m not, anymore”.