#3 : 13 by BLUR (Pitchfork, 23 March 1999 – Brent DiCrescenzo)
Six albums into their envious career, Blur have finally found a sound to match their name. I’m sure the name initially came from the donut- stuffed mouth of Virgin A&R; reps who feared selling a band called “Seymour” to the Teens UK. “Blur” fits the mold of the monosyllabic, schwa- voweled noun system of Brit-rock nomenclature– Pulp, Bush, Lush, Suede. Now, after nearly a decade, Blur have grown comfortable with their image and talents. From now on, it’s their mission to make ears and speakers uncomfortable. With producer William Orbit spreading gobs of digital fuzz, guitar wash, and deep- space bleeps in heavy strokes with William De Kooning- esque glee, the tracks on 13 bounce between studio walls, planets, and effects pedals until slowly unraveling and releasing with mercurian flashes and cherubic keyboard. It all… well… blurs.
The more Guitar God status fans and critics throw on Graham Coxon, the more Coxon attempts to vigorously destroy such notions with feedback, drilling, and controlled crust, which in turn just makes the fans and critics swoon even more. From the wandering melodies that twang and fall apart in “Tender” to the tongue- in- cheek metal- solo, vacuum theremin freakout, and surf- boogie ending in “Bugman,” to the crescendoing strums of “1992,” Coxon drops creative brain- blowers all over 13. Yet, the album sounds nothing like the band’s last self- titled LP. These days, Coxon’s guitars are manipulated to sound unlike guitars. Plus, layers of organs and loops balance out the intoxicating mix. But it’s Orbit’s UFO studio tricks make 13 a much more cohesive and consistant record than the eponymous LP.
Despite Graham Coxon’s fingerprints, 13 is Damon Albarn’s record from start to finish. From the opening epic, “Tender,” in which Albarn delivers the line “Love’s the greatest thing that we have” with a sarcastic croon after admiting that his heart screwed up his life, to the beautiful, stripped closer, “No Distance Left to Run,” in which he sighs with resignation, “It’s over/ You don’t need to tell me/ I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep,” Albarn opens his veins over 13’s DAT tapes. Sort of. On “Swamp Song,” though, he goes all Iggy Pop, grabbing the mic with sass and pose. And “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” could be a Brainiac song, the closest tune here to attaining the backlashed “Whoo-Hoo!”
Despite all the knob- twiddling and pedal- kicking, 13 contains several surprisingly subtle songs. “Trim Tramm” bobs along to quiet chords before kicking in the jets, and “Mellow Song” lets dainty moon- cocktail piano lines and hollow chimes swirl around lovely acoustic plucking. Each song is unique, yet fits perfectly into the overall hungover, psychedelic, 2001 mood. Once again, Blur has kept one step ahead of expectations (well, okay, they didn’t with The Great Escape, but that was still a great record) and continued to impress. In a way, Blur is one of the last big old- school “album” bands, a band more concerned with their entire career than radio singles, more concerned with “album” than “song.” The Beatles made a dozen albums in the ’60s and continually progressed. The reason why is simple: when a band is really, really good, they consistently make good records. Duh.
I’ve always had more than a soft spot for Blur. I liked the baggy-era beginnings but there was nothing at the time that really indicated they would not only be able to stand out from the crowd but enjoy a near 30-year career that would see them sell out stadiums in the UK and arenas in many other places. I fell for them big time in the run-up to and release of the sophomore album, Modern Life Is Rubbish before Parklife and The Great Escape turned them into massive stars, achieving what had long seemed impossible with gaggles of screaming teenybop fans at gigs alongside chin-stroking musos and those of us who just wanted to do whatever dance was appropriate. I stuck by them and was rewarded in 1997 with the self-titled fifth album, one which I feel contains or leads to many of their best moments thanks to the remixes which sneaked out under the cover of the Japanese-only release Bustin’ and Dronin’ the following year.
William Orbit had contributed four of the nine remixes and this, as much as his work with others, led to him being taken on to work on what would become 13, recorded from June to October 1998 in London and Reykjavík.
I think it’s fair to say that 13 was unlike any of the band’s previous efforts but in this instance it proved to be an immediate strength; indeed the diversity of songs and sounds on offer make it an album which is still a joy to listen to, not burdened down by familiarity. I contrast it with Parklife, another excellent record with many diverse songs and sounds but one I can’t but help associate with the time and place of its release and success and the fact that Blur gigs, out of the blue, became gigantic sing-alongs.
In terms of the songs, I really don’t have much to add to what Brent DiCresenzo said all those years ago when he awarded the album a 9.1 rating. There are beautiful and heart-felt ballads, there are tracks which would be nigh-on impossible to reproduce in the live setting and there’s also the most wonderful and radio friendly pop-song on which Graham Coxon took centre stage, assisted ably on backing vocals and harmonies by Damon Albarn:-
mp3 : Blur – Coffee and TV
In later years, it would be revealed that 13 was made at a time of real stress for the band:-
William Orbit – “There was a battle between Damon’s more experimental direction, and Graham’s punk one, and Graham prevailed. If that tension had been growing on previous LPs, it came to a head here”
Dave Rowntree – “Things were starting to fall apart between the four of us; It was quite a sad process making it. People were not turning up to the sessions, or turning up drunk, being abusive and storming off.”
Alex James – “I had songs; I played them to William. He liked them. But I was sulking. I didn’t play them to the others… Now I know how George Harrison felt.”
Graham Coxon – “I was really out there around 13, which made for some pretty great noise but I was probably a bit of a crap to be around.”
Coxon is bang on the money:-
13, in summary, is a noisy, abstract and rather experimental album, one which challenged everyone, long-time fans and casual listeners alike. Twenty years on, it’s the album I would contend has proven to be their masterpiece – not the one that most remember above all others, but the one which really does stand repeated listens.