Proving they have the goods of a truly exceptional band, Blur has done what the greats have done before them—evolved. Their first release Leisure tried to cash in on the shoegazing scene, to less than spectacular results, before Blur hit the payload with a mixture of Small Faces/Kinks-inspired British pop on a couple of era-defining releases (Parklife and The Great Escape). Growing bored with the Britpop formula they helped popularize, Blur deliberately sought to muck up their sound and get down to basics on the simply-titled, Pavement-esque Blur, with its monstrously-popular hit single “Song 2.”
Well, there’s no “woo hoos” on 13, but Blur continue to mine the lo-fi vibe, while pushing the envelope even farther on a record that boasts no obvious Madison Avenue material (“Song 2” is everywhere these days) and is sure to alienate fans wanting either more so-called quaint Britishisms or headbanging tune-fests (again “Song 2”). Led by the barnstorming, gospel-drenched, “Give Peace A Chance” sing-along of “Tender,” 13 rapidly moves into edgier, less-recognizably-Blur terrain. “Bugman” is a slab of fuzzy, lo-fi, psych-rock with a big beat edge that’s draped in distortion. The layers of synthesizers have a drunken feel, while on “Coffee & T.V.,” Blur indulges in a Prodigy-meets-Pavement vibe.
Underlying Blur’s new musical approach are moody lyrics, that the British tabloid-reading cognoscenti will already recognize as being entirely driven by Albarn’s break-up with Elastica lead vocalist Justine Frischmann. As for Albarn, his mock, cockney drawl of the Britpop years has been thoroughly trashed in favor of a less anthemic, subtler, and decidedly more American sound.
13 is the first Blur record that requires multiple listenings for it to really sink in. Albarn said recently in CMJ that he now sees himself as a composer and not a rock musician. That pretty much sums it up. With an experimental spirit that explores texture and sonic possibilities as well as a new lyrical forthrightness, 13 is not lo-fi in that 4-track, DIY, bedroom-indie pop kind of way. It’s more deliberate than that, as though Blur were twisting and playing with every knob in the studio in an attempt to break out of the confines of traditional rock. That they do is proof they should finally be taken seriously.