George W. Bush was sworn in last week, and it was interesting to watch television news intersperse black-tie gala footage with an Iraq war still littered with insurgents. There’s the crippling national debt to ponder if you’re like that, and our Social Security system may or may not be headed towards crisis. Then there are the natural disasters: the tsunami, the mudslides and the avalanches that helped ring in the New Year. I just trudged though more than a foot of snow this morning, scaling one enormously rutted snow pile after another to reach of all things, work, and now there is a four-week delay on the new Apple iPod Shuffle. So the question is this: Do marginally unhappy Americans like myself (and possibly you and possibly that person standing next to you) really have the time for former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon and his fifth solo album, emphatically titled Happiness in Magazines?
Sure you do. Coxon’s previous solo efforts have appealed mainly to hardcore Blur fans; his agreeable, stripped down version of guitar-drum-bass indie rock performing admirably, if not exactly setting the record buying public’s hair on fire. But his first solo effort since his departure from Blur two years ago is something different, because Happiness in Magazines is the first Coxon solo record that is demanding of your attention, and most primed for an American audience. Equal parts Blur, The Jam, American power-pop, blues-metal, ’80s punk and new wave, and Elvis Costello, Happiness in Magazines finds Coxon crafting and playing all instruments on a series of taut, catchy, and radio ready pop-rock gems. Bolstered even further by production from one-time Blur collaborator Stephen Street, songs like “Freakin’ Out”, “Spectacular”, and “No Good Time” ooze confidence, as Coxon melds sarcastic lyricism with hummable melodies and sharp, tuneful riffs. “Freakin’ Out” is particularly great (“Hey man you think you got it made/ Groovin’ your stink on your Fender bass/ Got on your aviator shades/ Hey man your looking really ace”), and is vaguely reminiscent of The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” as a prime example of effective guitar-based pop.
But Coxon undermines the record’s momentum somewhat by filling Happiness in Magazines with too many Blur-light moments (“Bittersweet Bundle of Misery”, “Hopeless Friend”, and “Bottom Bunk”) when really given the chance to kick the listener in the teeth. What these songs tend to do more than anything is expose Coxon’s unremarkable voice to the point where it sounds like you are listening to Parklife without the benefit of Blur lead singer Damon Albarn. Guitarists Bernard Butler and John Squire have both fallen into a similar trap after falling out with their equally famous bands. (Butler in fact seems to have conceded, teaming up with Suede lead singer Brett Anderson to form The Tears.)
This is somewhat unfair, as Coxon was a principle songwriter in Blur and therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that some songs sound like his former band, but it becomes a fair point when these songs tend to be the weaker tracks on the album — “Bittersweet Bundle of Misery” was even released as a UK single, probably because it sounds a bit like Blur’s “Coffee + TV”, which Coxon provided the lead vocals for.
Variety is better served here with the blues workout “Girl Done Gone”, which features some of Coxon’s best guitar work, the insistent new-waviness of “Don’t Be a Stranger”, and The Knack/Homosexuals smash-up “Right To Pop!”, served here as a U.S. bonus track.
Happiness in Magazines also contains a few of introspective ballads (with string accompaniment), and “All Over Me” is really quite nice, but this record is most enjoyable when Coxon’s guitar playing is at the fore. Off the drink and now happier, he says, than he’s been in years, Coxon’s enthusiasm on this record is also winning and can be felt throughout its 13 tracks. The drastic stylistic range of Happiness in Magazines can be jarring and uneven at times, but what’s most unfortunate is that this is yet another quality British import that will probably die a horrible death stateside. Maybe his management will hook him up with J. Mascis. Coxon is an admitted fan. Let him record 10 fast ones amongst the feet of snow in Massachusetts. That would make this American very happy indeed.