Sure, Blur were at times all over the map, but this two-disc set actually accentuates the incongruities of their occasional diversity by odd selection choices, bizarre sequencing, and about as much focus as a shuffle button.
It never seemed like Blur had much of a problem balancing their artier and poppier sides, but those sensibilities are engaged in a full-on battle on the bricolage compilation Midlife. Designed to be more of a career overview than a "hits" collection, Midlife is a bit of a mess. Sure, Blur were at times all over the map, but this two-disc set actually accentuates the incongruities of their occasional diversity by odd selection choices, bizarre sequencing, and about as much focus as a shuffle button.
I'm likely the target audience for any Beginner's Guide to Blur. Before doing the necessary research for this review, the only two Blur albums I had listened to extensively were 2003's uneven but underrated Think Tank and their 2000 Blur: The Best Of release. Much of Midlife is plucked straight from that greatest hits album, which seems only reasonable since Blur's hits were generally their best songs. Excluding songs like "Tender" or "The Universal" from a Blur mix would be writing a biography on the band and not mentioning anything about Graham Coxon. They're all essential parts of the story. The former album, Best Of, was criticized at the time of its release by the band and some fans for being too calculated, having congealed in a back room at EMI with the approval of focus groups and market research. Midlife, on the other hand, seems to have been released with no plan, lacking a coherent philosophy, strategy, or chronology to guide "beginners" who might be confused as to where the genius is. That’s not to say that Blur’s greatness is not on display, but many of these songs fare better individually than they do orphaned amongst each other here.
Of course, Blur encompasses complexities that are hard to bottle, even across a double album like Midlife. On their earliest work, which is generally thought to be less experimental than the electronic and noise theatrics of Blur and 13, the band was still known to throw in some delightful curveballs like the club culture satire “Girls and Boys” (with Morrissey-esque puritan pride to boot) or the one-of-a-kind hooky narrative rambles of “Parklife”. Coxon’s guitars could be off-key and atonal, or amply cued to a metronomic and poppy melodic refrains. Geographically, the music was neutrally split between a nationalist vision of British pop (particularly their earliest work), wannabe American indie aping (the long shadow of Pavement looming over Blur), and clumsy globalism (Think Tank, and, later, Albarn’s Mali Music project). Damon Albarn’s lyrics could likewise be vaguely heady or approachably surface, radical or parochial, espousing traditional values or critiquing a self-duplicating culture. It was music that represented well the paranoia of the 1990s, at times revealing the band to be outwardly claustrophobic, terrified of sex and/or intimacy, and disgusted with the rubbish of modern life.
Massive in the UK, Blur never achieved the kind of large-scale success in the States that their early rivals Oasis did. Only the brief success of “Song 2”, a buzz bin song which was soon assimilated into a jock jam, earned them much regard from modern rock radio or MTV. Still, their music must have crept its way into American culture somehow, because for some reason I recognized almost every single track from that Best of compilation when I bought it. And while, for the most part, the tracks that were on the former compilation but excluded from Midlife are perhaps the least essential of the “hits” (“To the End”, “Country House”, “Music is My Radar”), there’s barely anything more essential to the Blur story that would warrant this compilation’s existence, with the possible exception of the few tunes from Think Tank (particularly the gorgeous “Out of Time”), which was released a few years after Best Of. “Death of a Party” and “Chemical World” are both great tracks, but neither are drastically different either sonically or thematically from other work Blur has done.
The one exception to this is “Sing”, a brilliant and elegant song from their shoegazing days that is Reichian in its simplicity. The track never made it onto American versions of Leisure, but became iconic for its use in the soundtrack of Danny Boyle’s film Trainspotting. The desolate lyrics to “Sing”, with it’s reference to a “dead child” made it sound like it was written for that film, but, here, the wrist-slitting track gets placed after the inspirational grandeur of “The Universal” and its uplifting chorus of “It really, really, really could happen”, a bothersome emotional discordance that affects the impact of both songs when taken in the context of the whole album.
Other examples of this poor sequencing are abound. The “heavy metal” of “Song 2” is made to sound far lighter and less metal when placed next to the noisier, jammier, and far more irritating snark 'n’ squeal of “Bugman”. And though the Bowie-esque “Strange News from a Star” and the slightly haunting “Battery in Your Leg” are decent enough tracks, placing both of them at the tail end of this collection feels like an anticlimax. Neither of them have the drive required to either cap off this exhaustive listening experience or try to put all of this Blur into focus.
Any collection of this stripe will gain gripes about the insertion of this track or the subtraction of that track, but if Midlife was truly to be the “full” story, why not add in more abstract asides like the feedback ambience of 13’s “Caramel” or the fluttering electronics of the single-only “Don’t Bomb When You’re The Bomb” and showcase the true fringes of the band’s sound? Press materials tout the inclusion of the slightly lackluster out-of-print single “Popscene”, but the band’s back catalogue is filled with leftover goodies that could have made the cut -- like the decent fan club singles “Close” and “Some Glad Morning”, or the aptly named “Young and Lovely”. All of these would have likely sat better than mediocre piffle like “Badhead” with fans, who, let’s face it, are more the true audience for Midlife (not beginners). At 59 and 48 minutes each, with space left to fill on both CDs, the label’s lack of curiosity about these more obscure sections of the Blur discography seems negligent.
The name Midlife suggests that Blur’s reunion tour will bear more fruit than just a couple of live shows and some free promotion for this album, but the title is also the root of “midlife crisis”, a potentiality that can arise after separating for six years. Blur’s future options are wide open, as this messy, but expansive compilation illustrates. Indeed, Albarn has even widened the field with his solo work, as well his stints in Gorillaz and The Good The Bad and the Queen, both of which have begun to even outstage his formative band in terms of creativity. Yet, Blur need to be careful not to sell themselves short in the age of iTunes, as Midlife occasionally does. Expect downloaders to ready their alternate playlists before this one even drops.