Blur seem to be stuck with this image of being the happy-go-lucky, shouty, bouncy Essex boys who made oom-pah records as the sun shone over Britpop. Of their recent Brit Awards performance, ITV only showed their upbeat hits ‘Girls & Boys’, ‘Parklife’ and ‘Song 2’. Admittedly, this image was something that frontman Damon Albarn seemed to perpetuate at the time as he basked in the publicity.
However, after the massive success of The Great Escape, the band seemed to tire of the fame. Guitarist Graham Coxon struggled particularly badly with the pressures of being in a pop band pursued by girls and the press. By 1999, the Britpop movement was over and so was Albarn‘s long term relationship with Elastica singer Justinne Frischmann. I don’t like to revel in the misery of others, but the tensions and uncertainties affecting Blur helped make one hell of a record.
13 represented a departure from their earlier methods. Longtime producer Stephen Street was ditched, with William Orbit – the producer of Madonna‘s Ray Of Light – stepping in. Where Albarn’s lyrics were usually telling the stories of his invented characters, the lyrical content of 13 is bravely candid. Furthermore, the band recorded hours and hours of jams, which appear as exitludes on a handful of the album’s tracks.
While 13 may well be remembered most fondly for ‘Coffee & TV’ and the accompanying music video, which had a milk carton as its star, the record is mostly incredibly sombre, dense and alienating. We follow Albarn from declaring his infatuation on the spiritual ‘Tender’ through the pleas for things to get better on ‘Caramel’ and finally admitting that “It’s over/You don’t need to tell me” on ‘No Distance Left To Run’.
Despite the fact that most of the subject matter of 13 is heavily influenced by the frontman, the marks of Graham Coxon are all over this record. Popular opinion considers the guitarist as the band member who tired of the band’s mainstream appeal most, and on this record, we hear a far more fuzzy and discordant version of his trademark sound. His usual clean, embellished chords are put aside, with loud distortion and high pitch feedback in their place, even on the commercial hit ‘Coffee & TV’.
13 can be a harrowing listen, with wilfully unlistenable moments and emotional breakdowns set to music, but it shows Blur at their best, making expressive, experimental and transcendent music.