In the end, "Song 2" meant nothing. It was Brit-pop masquerading as Seattle rock, a Hit Single that was all release and no tension. How very American of a band that, until 1997's self-titled fifth record, kept everything obscured behind wily working-class-hero lyrics and rock-but-not-rawking music. And now "Song 2" will forever define Blur to an attention-span-deficient American audience that has turned the tune into the soundtrack of sporting events and computer commercials; hit a home run, and be rewarded with a "wooooo-hoooo." How very brilliant, then, that the new 13 doesn't feature a single song as fleeting and immediate as "Song 2." Sometimes, it seems as though the record will disintegrate into feedback and keyboard buzz--the disc nearly vibrates in its case.
Yet the first thing heard on 13, "Tender," is the sound of a band-on-the-verge trading in yesterday's radio-friendly for obtuse melodrama and on-yer-sleeve vulnerability. "Love's the greatest thing that we have," Damon Albarn sings in a from-the-heart falsetto, gospel singers c'mon-c'mon-c'mon cooing behind him. It sounds almost like U2 circa Rattle and Hum, U.K. lads sitting on their hands in a Memphis church pew; it's all a bit overblown and yet oddly affecting, less a calculated risk than an absolute dare. And if it's to be believed that 13 is a chronicle of Albarn's now-ended relationship with Elastica's Justine Frischmann, then "Tender" is rather an astonishing introduction above all else: hopeful, helpless.
Oh, there are hints throughout the record, allusions to dead love: "You loved my bed/You took the other instead," he sighs in the riveting "1992," a song that collapses into a moan of wrenching distortion and fading piano somewhere in the distance. Later, on "Trailerpark," he bitches that "I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones." But such details are left for the fanatics who will search each word for gossip-page confessionals. Better to think of the disc in the universal sense, rather than the personal: "Coffee & T.V." proffers a proposal of marriage while Graham Coxon chuga-chuga-chugas on the downstroke, until the whole song just sounds like a rather enormous grin. "B.L.U.R.E.M.I." might well have been the wise choice for a single: It's trashed-out new-wave, all barked verses and unrelenting pogo guitar--a fookin' hit, in 1982. But "No Distance Left to Run," toward the disc's end, is more emblematic of a record that begs to be listened to, even forgiven. It's either a hopeful farewell or a give-up goodbye--probably both, the saddest song Albarn will ever sing. Thank God.