A Cold Day in Springtime… Damon Albarn Is My Hero

Credibility is apparently a big deal in the music journo biz. I get that, at least in theory. I mean, I know why I’m supposed to take shit at face value and not let myself fall in love. But the whole reason I got into this mess in the first place was because I’m a fan and I get all emotional about music, and then I get all verbose and that just leads to trouble.

I love Damon Albarn.

There, I said it. It feels kind of good to get it out there, like therapy. Or exorcism.

I know it’s uncool or whatever to admit to having a musical crush on someone, but screw it. I love Damon Albarn. I love his vocals, both languid and falsetto, his enthusiasm for music of all shapes and sizes. I love that ridiculous gold tooth.

It started as most love stories do, with a blur. Only this was Blur, Albarn’s first exhilarating whiff of success, both as a songwriter and musician. I was an avid reader of the NME then, having first taken the plunge in college as I kept up with all the various Madchester groups and looked for wide-legged jeans in thrift shops. Blur came along with boasts that they were going to kill off baggy, but the first couple of tracks I heard retained the genre’s “Funky Drummer” beat.

But of course there was something else there, some link to either a past or future not even the Stone Roses could envision or hope to navigate. And if they didn’t actually kill off baggy, Blur outlived it. They outlived shoegaze, though songs like “Oily Water” off their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, and later b-side “Bustin’ + Dronin’” traipsed through its effects-rich fields. They outlived for years each new scene cooked up weekly by the British music press. And, most fittingly, they outlived BritPop, a movement they spearheaded, one which utterly destroyed their chief rivals, Oasis, who hid behind gargantuan egos and refried Beatle-riffs and stadium-shaking concerts for 15 more years, before finally going out with a whimper, unable to ever achieve the same level of dominance they’d shown during the scene’s all-too-brief run.

Blur themselves nearly succumbed, releasing a critically inferior follow-up to Britpop’s celebrated masterstroke, Parklife. It’s not that The Great Escape wasn’t any good. But in a world that moved impossibly fast, Blur didn’t move quickly enough to shed their skin and re-emerge dressed in some other finery. That would come later, but their misstep nearly cost them their credibility, and more significantly, their guitarist, Graham Coxon, a legendary partier who made the tabloids by being hit by a car and living to tell the tale. His decision to not bail on Blur in spite of his clear discomfort in their chart-annihilating “Country House” video would save the band, not just allowing them to reinvigorate The Great Escape by giving it untold texture while touring the shit out of the album, but also pointing them in their new direction with his fondness for American indie rock.

References were made to Pavement, though the self-titled Blur really only shared a distant kinship with the Stockton, California band’s music in its comparative refusal to smooth out the edges with a glossy production sheen. Still, the album was a triumph, finally breaking the band in America with the “WooHoo”-heavy “Song 2″, thus putting the band alongside everyone from the Ramones to Gary Glitter in becoming clipped sports arena staples. There was much more to Blur than the album’s first frenetic salvo. “Death of a Party” and “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love”, for example, still retained the band’s songwriting skills, but the tunes were also kinda weird. The follow-up, 13, was both more experimental and romantic, teaming lush ballads to love longing and love lost with often impenetrable exercises in artistic tomfoolery.

Blur released one more album in 2003, the underrated Think Tank, which incorporated elements of Albarn’s now-complete transformation into the world music-touting Sting it was okay to admit liking. The album, at least back then, also marked what felt like the permanent departure of Coxon. The guitarist, who himself had turned his love of the lo-fi indie aesthetic into a series of fine solo albums, appeared on just one track on Think Tank, peeling off a guitar line in the already mournful “Battery in Your Leg” that channeled all the pain and tension and heartache they must all have been feeling as they said goodbye.

On the surface, Albarn seemed alright with the split. After touring Think Tank, he focused his attention on a host of other musical projects, releasing a second collaborative album under the Gorillaz umbrella, joining forces with Clash bass guitarist Paul Simonon and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen in the Good, the Bad and the Queen and touring An Honest Jon’s Chop Up with a host of artists on the venerable London-based record label he helped kick-start. Blur was gone, and I told myself I was alright with it as long as Albarn and Coxon kept on releasing good music. And they really did.

See, here’s the thing about Albarn – It sounds ridiculous saying it in my own head, so I’ve no doubt it’ll sound completely insane to naysayers and pooh-poohers alike, but Damon Albarn is the closest thing we’ve got to a renaissance man. Not everything he touches is the purest of gold. There have been duds, for sure. But if a guy can put a song like Gorillaz’ lush “Hong Kong” on a benefit compilation instead of as the centerpiece of his own album, well that’s pretty special. The majestic “Sunset Coming On” closed out the Honest Jon’s shows in splendid fashion, and it was buried on the little-heard Mali Music album.

And then Blur weren’t dead after all, performing a handful of shows, both small and massive, including a pair of headline gigs in London’s Hyde Park last July, the latter of which I’d bought a ticket to, yet regrettably could not attend. And then they were gone again, with members of the band sounding as though they’d have liked to see more of the same and maybe some new material too, why not? But Albarn killed that hope, instead pushing a third Gorillaz album, which finally dropped over a month ago to great hype and acclaim

Make no mistake, because everyone’s a critic; Plastic Beach may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially those who’d hoped it would more closely echo Gorillaz’ sophomore effort, Demon Days. But while the album did share its predecessor’s grand thematic drive and collaborative esprit de corps, it’s something altogether different. The first full track features Snoop Dogg in George Clinton mode, giving “Welcome to the Plastic Beach” its “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” smooth. And it rolls on from there, with everyone from Lou Reed to Mark E. Smith to, once again, De La Soul all jumping on board.

On the surface, Gorillaz is a cartoon band, with an elaborately expanding story arc to cover its four characters. But while that piece of the puzzle might appeal to some, what really makes Gorillaz special is Albarn, not only in his grand musical vision and melting pot approach to making it happen, but also his canny understanding of how and when to keep his massive ego in check because the music really is the message.

It’s true, my musical hero doesn’t lack in confidence. People I know who’ve met him have described everything from a sweetheart to a Scrooge, and there’s footage all over the internet to support all points between the two extremes. Maybe Albarn is a real asshole. But so are a lot of geniuses, and if we can’t separate what art from the artist, we’re left with nothing but a pile of dreary detritus, and that’s not a whole lot of fun to listen to at full volume soaring down the motorway with the windows open. “Stylo”, the first single from the futuristic/apocalyptic Plastic Beach, on the other hand, is perfect for such road-based outings, and its video sure sells that point nicely.

And as I listened to “Rhinestone Eyes” and “White Flag” and – especially – “Empire Ants” for the millionth time, I knew I had my summer soundtrack, felt the warmth of the pavement breaking through the bitter, fleeting cold of winter. And then came the news that Blur maybe weren’t really dead after all.

It started as a rumor, or at least appeared to be. Did Blur suddenly get together in a studio to record a track for a very limited run 7-inch single in celebration of Record Store Day, the annual event designed to keep the little guy from getting dragged into oblivion by the murky undertow of technological progress. Was Blur really about to release its first single with Coxon back in the fold since 2000’s “Music is My Radar”? Thankfully, yes. That’s exactly what happened, and after the 1,000 copies of the single sold out on Saturday, the band put the thing up for free on their official website as a download. And, yeah, I’ve crippled my objectivity by falling prostrate at Albarn’s well-heeled feet, but gee whiz, “Fool’s Day” is really, really good.

It’s hard to know what goes on in a man’s head. Did Blur reunite last year because they felt like they had unfinished business? Was it the promise of truckloads of cash being dumped at their front doors? Was their bond with each other and their fans so strong that the pull proved to be too difficult to ignore? It was probably a bit of each, with a dash of whatever enigmatic folderol Albarn had coursing through his veins on that particular day.

But when it was all over, when the tents were folded up and the footage for the documentary and concert film shot, why didn’t Blur just let goodbye be goodbye? The answer, or at least part of it, might be found in the lyrics to “Fool’s Day.”

It’s a day in the life for Albarn, as he covers what happens from the moment he wakes, interspersing mundane images like eating breakfast and dropping his kid off at school with marginally existential side roads thrown in. And part of this day’s journey, April 1, 2010, is a trip to the recording studio, and most gloriously for Blur fans, “A love of all sweet music. We just can’t let go.” Whether this is a new beginning or the end through an admission that these four men mean more to one another than they knew is unclear. If this really, REALLY is the end, it’s a beautiful goodbye.

That lyrical itinerary recalls “Busy Doin’ Nothin'”, a song on the Beach Boys’ 1968 album Friends. The album comes in at just under 30 minutes, and was almost forgotten upon arrival. But I’ve always really loved it, in part because it’s got a warmth and intimacy and, well, friendliness. It was probably therapeutic for Brian Wilson to work on albums like Friends and its predecessor Wild Honey after the whole SMiLE/Smiley Smile fiasco sent him over the edge. And while I appreciate that gentle vibe, there’s one song that just takes the comfort level a bit too far. “Busy Doin’ Nothin'” is essentially a list of shit Brian’s planning to do that day. And it’s a boring day, too. But the Beach Boys, like Blur, somehow manage to make it sound way more interesting than our own boring days.

And so on to the music. Dave Rowntree is as solid as ever on drums, and Alex James’ bass seems to have shelved its debt to Duran Duran’s John Taylor for the Romantics’ “Talking in Your Sleep” by way of Simonon. And the harmonies… and the guitar… Much as I convinced myself that Think Tank was alright without more than a brief Coxon cameo, his guitar on “Fool’s Day”, especially that riff as the song fades, with hints of sweeping harmonies in its wake. This is what always made Blur so brilliant, all of it together.

Albarn’s other band, Gorillaz, closed Coachella on Sunday, bereft of the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who were grounded by volcanic death dust. If the water cooler disappointment on the festival’s official message board is any indication, there was too little cartoons, too little energy, too little when a festival closing slot needed much too much. I wouldn’t know. I spent the night with the Blur: Live at Hyde Park film, comforting myself over missing one Albarn concert by watching another one I’d missed. Such is often the way with fandom; the missed opportunities so often pile up toward the sky while the good stuff can fit in a tiny box on your dresser. But it’s those moments, and the music what it does to us that makes it all so meaningful.