By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The last two years in the life of British pop combo Blur closely resemble the plot of an awful movie starring country singer George Strait. Pure Country was foisted upon an unsuspecting American public in 1992, and it was notable solely because it marked the "acting" debut of Strait. In it, the trailer-park thespian plays Dusty Chandler, a wildly successful country singer who has become disillusioned with life on the road and the music business. Dusty retreats to a remote corner of the world (Texas) and, free from the day-to-day bull of the music business, rediscovers his love of playing music. Revitalized by his sojourn in the country, he returns to the stage with a stripped-down, back-to-basics sound.
Like young Dusty, Blur was warming itself in the spotlight's friendly glare two years ago; the band had just released its fourth album, The Great Escape, and found itself playing in front of sell-out crowds in Europe, Asia, and North America. Yet somewhere between here and there, between popularity and notoriety, it stopped being fun. The little things that come with touring--radio and press interviews, in-store appearances, et cetera--had taken their toll on the band. Guitarist Graham Coxon's propensity for starting drunken dust-ups with band mates also didn't help matters.
"When you spend a long time on the road, you just end up spending more time thinking about the music business and the inanities of endless interviews and promotional activities," bassist Alex James says, calling from the band's suite at the posh Paramount Hotel in New York City. "You do get encouraged to do an awful lot of inane shit, just because that's what you have to do."
Burned out, the band disappeared from the scene for a while after the last tour, retreating to a remote corner of the world (Iceland) to sort things out. Coxon stopped drinking, and the rest of the band fell in love with the country--particularly singer Damon Albarn, who opened a coffeehouse in the middle of nowhere. Unencumbered by industry demands, the band rediscovered its love of playing music.
"I think we just wanted to concentrate on the music more, and going to Iceland, as well as being a physical thing, it was a metaphorical move, just to take ourselves completely out of everything and start again," James says. "It's very much somewhere else.
"When you're in a band, you just have to go to all the big, grubby cities where people who buy records live. [Iceland] is made out of volcanoes and mountains and stuff. It's not made out of pavement. Looking at a volcano is a good hangover cure."
Re-energized by Iceland's clean air and almost constant daylight, the band emerged from its self-imposed exile with a stripped-down, back-to-basics sound and a desire to make an album for themselves, not for the fans or record company suits.
The result is Blur, an album that made many longtime Blur fans wonder if perhaps the boys hadn't heard that grunge was no longer all the rage (maybe news travels a little more slowly to Iceland). The blasting horns and lilting strings that marked some of the band's best work have been replaced by droning guitars and strange snippets of sound. Albarn's lyrics--once character studies of various archetypes found in British culture--now are almost indecipherable, random words that fit the rhythm of the song.
The spawn of Blur's recent love affair with American post-alternative rock--specifically Pavement, Beck, and Sonic Youth--the album abandons Britpop, a genre it helped define; in its stead are a mish-mash of styles and experiments. Some, such as "You're So Great," the first Blur song to feature lead vocals by Coxon, work wonderfully; others, such as "Essex Dogs," a failed excursion into trip-hop, sound like one-off throwaways. Yet despite the album's range of styles, James insists the band was never concerned that it may have been retail poison.
"There's only one record you can make at any one particular time, and you just gotta try and make that record," James says. "As soon as you start worrying about what Hans in Hamburg is going to think about 'Beetlebum,' then you've lost the plot a little bit."
As it turns out, American audiences like the new Blur--or, as is the case with "Song 2," a hit on alternaradio and MTV, the old Nirvana. So far, the album has sold 250,000 copies in the U.S.--not exactly Oasis-type numbers, but more than the quartet's previous four albums moved combined. Most likely, the bulk of those records sold thanks to "Song 2," which smells a whole lot like teen spirit left out in the sun. It's a furious, familiar two-minute burst featuring one monster guitar riff and a chorus as catchy as the flu. In fact, it's so infectious that when it was played over the P.A. between sets by Jewel and the Wallflowers at June's Blockbuster RockFest, a deafening cry of "Whoo-hoo!" erupted from the audience of more than 200,000.
The success of "Song 2" has also led to the band's spending more time in the United States, a country Blur has not always been that fond of. "Touring in America is quite repetitive, to be brutally frank," James says. "It makes a difference when people are interested in who you are, which is happening this time. Which hasn't really happened before."
As the band's popularity in America has increased, so have rumors that relations between band members have become strained. A recent Rolling Stone article insisted that Coxon and Albarn, once best mates, now hardly speak to one another. James dismisses the rumors as slick attempts to shoehorn the band into a particular story.
"I think there's some retentive need to make it look like everything has gone wrong for Blur when everything started to go right for Oasis," James says. "If you spend a week with a band, you'll experience the whole gamut of emotions. Every day there's little squabbles.
"When you read something in a newspaper, it's not any kind of truth. If somebody chooses to focus on how bad the band gets along, they'll find lots of things to say. But if they choose to focus on how well the band gets along, they'll also find lots of things to say. You're just looking at it through somebody else's eyes."
In the end, the band deserves credit for making the album it wanted to, something many bands--especially successful ones--are afraid to do. Radiohead tried it, and the result was an album (OK Computer) that has already been penciled in on many critics' Best of 1997 lists. U2's foray into electronica, the recent Pop, did not fare as well, and left some wondering if the band is still viable.
"I think you've gotta feel like you're achieving something useful," James says. "It'd be very easy to pander to popular demands and make big-selling records. But that isn't what makes us want to get out of bed in the morning. I think we want to invent the future. That's what makes us want to get out of bed in the morning."