Modern Life Is Repetition: Blur’s Spare Lexicon and Endless Atmosphere

Blur 21: The Box

Blur has been a scrappy band from day one. They were, at one point, the biggest act in the UK, but they both struggled to get there and struggled to keep it. When they put out their first album, 1991’s Leisure, they were working in a post-Stone Roses landscape and trying to distance themselves from other pop acts. They would have to battle with the onset of Grunge and getting overshadowed by the likes of Suede. On top of that, they were growing as a band themselves. Blur didn’t emerge fully formed. For all Graham Coxon’s brilliance on the guitar and Damon Albarn’s charms as a singer and clever knack for songwriting, it took them a little while to realize their powers. To do so, they went through more than a few changes.

Now that we’re spending 2012 honoring them — with a spot in the Olympic closing ceremony, a huge concert in Hyde Park, and a massive box set, Blur 21: The Box — we also get the chance to take a complete look at their career to date. The box set is a monster, with all seven studio albums, countless hours of outtakes and b-sides and unreleased material, and three DVDs of live performances. It’s all housed in one huge collection and not only has a shockingly consistent quality but it also presents an interesting arc for the band. We get to hear them transform, but we also see their structural and thematic obsessions and fascinations and how they evolved and changed over time.

What we hear most about Blur on Blur 21: The Box is that this is a band that likes to repeat itself. Or rather, the band simultaneous repeats itself and yet constantly reinvents its sound. There’s a curious tension between the reliance on repeated phrases in the lyrics and the persistent tweaking of the sonic palate behind them. It starts right away on the debut Leisure. Look at opening song, and lead single, “She’s So High”. It’s a song about repetition, about the same thing over and over again. Albarn pines “I see her face every day.” On top of that, he claims, “I think of her every day.” But once we get to the soaring chorus, we get that this isn’t love so much as troubling obsession. “I want to crawl all over her,” he moans, and we get the underbelly of his assumed unrequited love.

It does things that a lot of pop songs do — pits dark lyrics against bright melodies, gives us an unreliable narrator — but it does them so well. The brightness of the song, Coxon’s swirling guitars — which play like a sunny counterpoint to the gloomy repetition of the likes of My Bloody Valentine — puts us in the frame of mind of the narrator. He is both driven crazy and lifted up by this image. His repetition both drags him down and elevates him.

And so goes Leisure. “Bang” finds Albarn breaking away from the workaday crowd even as he still searches for love. The appropriately titled “Repetition”, which grinds more than anything else here, bemoans a similar stasis. “All things remain the same, so why try again?” Albarn wonders. In this way, the album condemns its own title, turning leisure from good sport to distraction. The sunburst palate of the record reflects the short-term effect of this kind of repetition, of working for two weeks off, of finding love you can’t have once again, and shows the momentary joy, but the overall effect — particularly Albarn’s exhausted vocals and Coxon’s constantly spinning guitars full of tones that tangle and confuse each other. Sure, some of the repeating on the record reflects the limits of the band’s fledgling sonic palate, but the band tries on different hats here, from shoegaze to power-pop to fuzzed-out rock. So while they may dig into that idea of what everyone else does, you can see them digging around for their escape route, for their own path.

That’s a path they started to find with 1993’s Modern Life is Rubbish. The band hung up some of the rock layers of Leisure in favor or tapping into more traditional British pop sounds on the sophomore record. Opener “For Tomorrow” imagines a time where the dull routine is broken. Albarn claims to be “holding on for tomorrow,” and the brittle guitar work seems to be basking under the sun of a new day. There are, however, those gloomy keys and dramatic strings cast a shadow over all that light. There’s also the la-la’s that weave through the song, the ever-grinding wheel of the present still there, still not going away. “Advert” pares down the maximalist rock of Leisure into a punk fury, but once again we’re dealing with habit on a song that starts with the commute home from work. “I need something to remind me that there’s something else,” Albarn admits, and wishes for a holiday. “Colin Zeal” has a hint of Pink Floyd working-for-the-machine paranoia. “Pressure on Julian” twists that same paranoia into something more playful and akin to the quirky pop of Robyn Hitchcock with a psych-rock turn.

By the time we work our way to gauzy closer “Resigned”, with its oppressive layers and deliberate pace, we see the tension of Leisure full realized on Modern Life is Rubbish. We see the quotidian again, we hear phrases repeated and beaten into the ground. But we also hear an ever-changing sonic world behind those phrases. We hear Blur working through all kinds of pop sounds and finding their own place in them. There’s plenty of comparisons to the Kinks for this material, and with good reason, but if the words here are pent up, yearning for something new, the music is a response to that, an exploration with no real endpoint, wandering for wanderings sake. That wandering goes mostly into a musical past, but it drags it into the present. If they are repeating older pop tropes, they are also trying to reshape them. In that way Modern Life is Rubbish isn’t necessarily moving away from Leisure so much as it is refining what it did, and to brilliant effect.

It’s also an album that sets up Parklife, the band’s crowning achievement. It’s one of those albums that’s hard to talk about without repeating something that’s already been said. It is important to note, though, that Albarn’s insistence on repeating basic phrases remains intact here. Classic single “Girls & Boys” both keeps this idea going and plays with it. In the chorus, we’ve got “girls who are boys who like boys to be girls / who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys.” The lines here are both repetition and not. We get “girls” and “boys” over and over, but their relation to one another changes as gender confusion takes hold. Albarn is not, of course, vilifying gender confusion so much as he is sending up vacant sexuality. The final line of the chorus, about how it “should be someone you really love” brings Albarn’s classic romantic side into the mix, pitting his search for love — yet again — against the physicality of the song. This is about how sex has become another way to distance ourselves from another and from ourselves. In other words, it’s been made into another crushing part of the routine.

On Parklife, we once again have a distinction made between honoring tradition and falling into rote behavior — this tension also runs through all the albums, establishing yet another layer of recurrence — as the music mines pop’s history and Albarn sends up public life while laying private life bare. This album does all the things people claim it does with perfect melodies and the band’s now-encyclopedic understanding of pop music, but what really makes it stand out is a shift in Albarn. He may still hate the everyday, see “Tracy Jacks” and “The Debt Collector”, but what’s interesting about this album is when it breaks the cycle of repeated phrases. “Badhead” is sweet and heartbreaking because Albarn stops sneering and emotes. He’s sleeping in “from a lack of anything to do” hurting over the loss of someone he doesn’t stay in touch with. Along with songs like “To the End”, we’ve got a very deep regret that works its way through Parklife. For all the performative tasks of the everyday we see her, they get juxtaposed with private mourning, a mourning never expressed in repeated lines. It took albums, but Albarn broke through the patina of society or workforce or what-have-you and found broken people underneath, people with feelings that don’t fit the easy borders of public life, the kind of things you can’t simply rinse and repeat. Blur is still moving forward sonically on Parklife — the expanse of sound here is controlled and far more fruitful than Leisure — and now it seems this is the moment they start to push at their themes too.

Parklife found a heart in the city, but The Great Escape follows with a curious and dark turn. It moved to the suburbs with a far more cynical edge, from the woman in “Stereotypes” who’s “more accommodating when she’s in her lingerie” to the fat cat on classic single “Country House” to the drunken delusion of “Charmless Man” to the work-for-the-weekend absurdity of “Entertain Me”. All through the album, Albarn is at his most bitingly witty, which makes for some dark fun. Lyrically, though, it doesn’t end up being as interesting as Parklife. That album broke through the surface and found gems hidden underneath. Here, The Great Escape is all about the image itself, and condemning it, so while form does reflect content here, the album sometimes forgets to send up those stereotypes and instead relies on them. But if the bitterness of the language finds Albarn in retreat — and still in repetition mode, these suburban drones saying the same shit ad nauseum — the music itself is quite curious. It’s the band both at its most lean — Coxon’s guitar work here is surprisingly clear, not as jagged or melted at the edges as on Parklife — and at their most exploratory. This is where we start to see electo-flourishes and ramped-up synths. It’s a hint at what’s to come, another step forward for the band, while the subjects of their songs continue to march in place.

By 1997’s Blur the band had famously, on “Song 2”, pared their repetition down to a simple “woo hoo” to brilliant effect. Then, there’s also the repetitive nature of the title. We can call it self-titled, but really this album is Blur – Blur. Curiously enough, though, the album’s sound defies any self-definition, unless it is redefinition. The album doesn’t build on the main parts of The Great Escape but rather the tangents. Excluding the lean “Song 2”, it’s an album bedded down in curious details. There’s the goofy high-register singing and distant creaks of “Sad Country Ballad Man”, the treated vocals of “M.O.R.”, the blippy electro-pop of “On Your Own”, and the unruly guitar work of “Essex Dogs”. They were all in some way new sounds for Blur, and so the same sorts of repetition didn’t fit. Albarn for his part branches out into wordier lyrics here — though when he goes after that conformity again on “M.O.R.” we see every line repeated in automaton deadpan — and in his place Coxon’s guitar does its own repeating. He gives these experimental tunes a foundation in repetition on, say, the broken-record progression that opens “Beetlebum” or the slicing riff on “M.O.R.” or the deceptively simple base of the organ-vamp “Death of a Party”. You can hear the base elements — the guitar, the bass, the drums, the vocals — hitting a wall, but it’s the seemingly extra sounds that push forward. If the band is about breaking free of the rat race, it found a new astral plane to travel on Blur.

And that wall they hit hangs heavily over both 1999’s 13 and 2003’s Think Tank. The albums are both huge lush productions, but they deal in very real broken relationships. The other albums may have, to varying degrees, got at the pain under the working class, but on these two albums things are much more real. 13 documents Albarn’s split with his then-girlfriend, Elastica’s Justine Frischmann. It also marks a split with long-time producer Stephen Street. If Albarn is broken up by the first split — this is him at his most confession and as a result perhaps his most compelling — the band is set free from the second. We’ve got the choir of vocals on “Tender” who, by the way, repeat “come on, come on, come on.” There’s the Specter-size wall of sound and eccentric speak-singing of “Swamp Song”. You also hear the untethered psychedelic mess of “Battle” and the space-jazz wanderings of “Caramel”. These are pitted against the simpler pleasures of standouts like “Coffee & TV”, but what’s intriguing about 13 is the opposite of what’s intriguing about Think Tank. The ends on 13 make for curious new beginnings. It is their biggest most wide-open album, and if it sacrifices some of the pure pop joy of earlier records it trades it for a charming unpredictability.

That charm wears out on Think Tank. This, of course, marked the end of Albarn and Graham Coxon’s relationship — for the time being, anyway — and with Albarn hitting it big with side-project Gorillaz, he pushed any and all ideas he could come up with on Think Tank. Without Coxon to either shape them with his guitar or just plain check Albarn’s inner muse, things come apart here. It’s not an out and out failure, with the moody haze of “Out of Time” and the dancy but jangling “Brothers and Sisters”. But we also come back around to repetition, though not in a clever way. Instead, Albarn tries to recapture the rock blast of “Song 2” on “Crazy Beat” and sounds flat, while “On the Way to the Club” sounds like a flabby reworking of the lush space of 13.

Closer “Battery in Your Leg”, though, completes a curious career loop. “You can be with me, if you want, you can be with me,” Albarn sings at the end, and we’ve got a repetition that somehow draws back to “She’s So High.” In 1991, the love was unrequited and creepy. Here, there’s at least a hint of reciprocity, but the connection isn’t quite there. Instead of admiring for a distance though, here we get an invitation. It’s also an interesting turn since Albarn had broken his long-standing musical relationship with Coxon. Alone in more ways than one now, we see him breaking through all the cycles of sound around him, all the cycles he sings about, and trying to make a connection.

Blur was a band that investigated these routines in an attempt to break from them, that chiseled away at them until they cracked. Albarn said the line then said it again and then said it again to reveal not the comfort of words, but how the way we say things reveals what we truly want. In the end, if you follow the arc through all the drudgery and city doom and gloom, it’s love. And even if the music pressed forward — stalling a bit on Think Tank — it did so with Coxon’s own kind of routine, with his guitars circling around Albarn’s lyrical world. Those circles grew and distorted and expanded and shrunk, but they were always circles, ending where they began.

And now we’ve come full circle, and Blur 21: The Box documents it with a staggering breadth of material — even the B-sides and unreleased material feel uniformly strong. It’s a complete and necessary document for a band so important to their country’s music and to music in general. Which is why they’ve returned, why they’ll play the Olympics and Hyde Park. Coxon is back too, and there’s a new album to look forward to. They’re a working band again. But while we may know exactly what it is the band is after, their greatness comes in this: we still have no idea how they’ll get to it.

RATING 9 / 10