Blur and Tom Russell
15 March 1999
With 13—a sprawling, noisy, meandering mess of a would-be masterpiece—Blur completed their break from the classicist Britpop that had been their bread and butter since 1993, a transition that began on 1997’s self-titled album and finds its consummation here, on their most adventurous, interesting, and flawed album.
Though on its surface it sounds like it might be a bold, but clumsy, attempt at rebirth, a possible new beginning, 13 is actually mostly concerned with endings: the end of the band’s longtime relationship with legendary producer Stephen Street (who was instrumental in shaping the sound of another little British group by the name of the Smiths) in favor of knob twiddler William Orbit; the end of their former pop formalism and lyrical wit in favor of a more fluid, almost formless aesthetic; the end of Albarn’s long-term romantic relationship with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann (which break-up fueled a good portion of the album’s lyrical content and its overall tone); the beginning of the end of the core songwriting relationship in the band between singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon (though the latter wouldn’t actually leave the band formally until the next album, Think Tank); and, I suppose, the end of the millennium (or the “End of a Century”… ha!).
A classic case of ambition far outstripping actual reach (and being all the better for it), 13 is less of a reinvention than an attempt to completely dissolve the band’s old crisp concision and pop eclecticism in a… ahem… blurry sonic soup of squalling distortion, electronic flourishes, buzzsaw guitars, jammed out noodling, extraneous instrumental interstitials, indulgent song lengths, and nonsense lyrics. There are a few recognizable parts of the old Blur buried in there somewhere, but the band seems fully intent on sloughing off its old self—damn the fans, damn sales, damn Britpop.
The kitchen sink approach taken to both the songwriting and overall production and sound yields a wildly uneven, but always captivating, album that is relentless in its desire both to discourage and surprise in equal measure. The latter applies to the stunning album opener, and lead single (at nearly eight minutes!), “Tender”, a towering, shambling, sad sack break-up song buoyed up and thrown heavenward by a gospel-tinged choir. Its slow, swelling, almost tribal build-up on a simple repetitive guitar line and vocal melody, coursing from emotional frailty up through to exultation, is the frontloaded highpoint of the album, and possibly of Blur’s entire career.
13 veers off sharply thereafter—perhaps by accident, perhaps by design—crashing down into the howling paranoid glam rave-up “Bugman”, followed by the only really recognizable old school Blur song, ”Coffee and TV”, before wandering off and losing its way in a number of muddled, confounding songs in its middle section. These seem often more like the germs of songs than songs proper, experiments that are picked up and then abandoned before completion and paring down (most of them stretch out needlessly past five minutes, and a few past seven).
13 redeems itself on its back third, though, before adjourning with the bookend and answer to “Tender”, the beautiful, wistful ballad “No Distance Left to Run”—a tired dirge that caves in to resignation and acceptance in the face of the inevitable end of things. The end of love, of the millennium, of the old Blur. Jake Meaney
16 March 1999
The Man from God Knows Where
To suggest that Tom Russell’s album The Man from God Knows Where should feature on American History syllabuses may not sound like the ultimate compliment. But part of the brilliance of this undervalued multi-vocal song-cycle—or “folk opera”—is to illuminate American immigrant experience in a complex, ambitious-but-accessible, vivid, and thoroughly enjoyable way.
Drawing deeply on his own background as the child of Norwegian and Irish immigrants, Russell produces a record that is at once utterly personal and totally expansive, charting the experiences of a variety of characters in a manner both intimate and mythic. Subtle and tasteful arrangements built around Old and New World musical traditions and augmented with snatches of hymns and folk songs provide the rich musical context. Vocally, Russell enlists the help of a stellar line-up of roots music luminaries, placing his own burly, authoritative, Johnny Cash-ish tones alongside Dolores Keane’s smouldering soul-of-Ireland burr, Iris DeMent’s aching high lonesome twang, the austere Scandinavian sounds of Kari Bremnes and Sondre Bratland, and the off-kilter croak of Dave Van Ronk. Even Walt Whitman gets in on the act, with Russell brilliantly incorporating a bit of the poet’s voice as recorded by Thomas Edison on wax cylinder in 1890.
The cast sensitively inhabit characters ranging from Sitting Bull to a lonely prairie housewife, and the album broadens out into a dazzling array of narratives and perspectives, unfolding like an epic motion-picture as its characters confront homesickness, prejudice, joy, and disillusionment in their new land. Russell’s potent investigation of American realities and mythologies makes The Man from God Knows Where an album not simply for 1999, or for 2009, but one for the ages. Alexander Ramon