Blur 21: The Box

There was a time in the early ’90s when MTV was putting out mixed signals ranging between the dance hits of Club MTV, the alternative sounds of 120 Minutes and the gasping corpse of hair metal. Nirvana was a bright burning sun in the eyes of the music industry, indie labels had begun punching through the mirrored plastic ceiling of the pop charts, and America was at war with what kind of music it was going to serve its teenaged miscreants. Gone were the big solos and vapid lyrics, the patent leather boots and spandex leopard print pants, replaced by a billowing flag of flannel, thermal underwear, torn denim and esoteric band t-shirts. Rock & roll was alive and thriving, and where a hero would fall another would rise with a guitar to take his place. And the ’90s were good.

Soon enough pop rock became similarly convoluted and dull, and the indie world rose to fill its place. It was 1997 and you could buy new rock records again. Then an annoying cry of “Woo-hoooo” echoed through the tv speakers after school and an unrealistically beautiful British man told me he was “feeling heavy metal.” Soon, round white stickers with the word Blur written in a lower-case retro bowling alley font were plastered all over town. The jig was up. Rock was dead and those fops from the UK had killed it again. Little did we know there’d been a war in Britain between mop-top rockers in denim with recycled hooks and over-educated theatrical mods in floods and cardigans and brogues. There was no mention in America of the hype machine pitting Oasis against Blur, nastily dragging the bands to the top of the charts. Or maybe no one on this side of the Atlantic cared for a two-bit manufactured beef between two bands that couldn’t have cared less for each other? After one incredibly over played Beatles-esque cut from Oasis, how could anyone even stand the manufactured “grunge” pap of “Song #2?” Oh what crap it was!

Two years later and I was spending a week in Berkeley with my sister to get a handle on my angst. A heartbreaking gospel song came over the speakers when I was digging for New Order singles in the city. The clerk said it was the new Blur record, and I bought it with the mindset that if that snotty Brit dandy could find some humility, maybe I could too. I spent an unbroken summer with 13, letting Damon Albarn’s pain and loss ease my own self-important love wounds until I started digging for old Blur records. To judge the band from that damn “Song #2” was wrong, and I had absolutely no idea how wrong. They started out as Seymour during the last MDMA-twitch of the Madchester scene, and even charted a song I’d always mistaken for Charlatans UK. They genre-hopped from angry outsider finger-waggers to pasty Ibiza holiday nightlifers to rainy street Morrissey mopes to Kink-y cheeky cockney knockers to angry industry victims to heart-smashed and painfully sincere modern artists. A band like this doesn’t earn credit on singles alone; it is the album cuts that make a band like this timeless and rewarding.

While it would be painful to read a review of every song included here, don’t think that it wouldn’t be worth writing. The boys wrote a million songs (actually I have 281 here, including remixed and live cuts), and all of them could take a full explication and critique. There are plenty of toss-offs, like the ditty “Beached Whale,” but just the same there are valuable songs you may have only heard about, like “Sir Elton John’s Cock” and “Pap Pop,” both of which show the band’s affinity for Syd Barrett’s weird chord changes and turns of phrase. Blur is, after all, a wholly British band, from the freaking capital, and they won’t let you forget it. While NBC didn’t broadcast their Hyde Park closing ceremony show for the 2012 Olympics, on replay it’s clear they love their country for all its high falutin obtuse faults. Songs like “Parklife,” “Country Sad Ballad Man” and “Charmless Man” show they can skewer the populace while paying homage to the rest of the yokels that get it right. “Look Inside America,” “The Universal,” “End of the Century,” and “Death of a Party” show they have a handle on the rest of the world and in the end a clear ideal that humanity should live up to if only on a personal level. Surely this may be attaching too much to a silly ol’ band, but how does a band have such mythical energy? They play music. They sit down and work hard and write it and work at it and bring it to the people so we are here to judge them. So are they worth the retrospective?

Blur 21 is a tastefully curated compilation. It’s by no means comprehensive because there would be an absurd amount of redundancy, and truthfully, much of it would be filler. Missing are a few tracks that some fans would freak over, mainly the UNKLE remix of “Battle,” but they mercifully included the essential Cornelius remix of “Tender.” Unfortunately, the vinyl version is sans extra tracks, though I suppose that cuts down on the carcinogenic footprint and shipping costs. The compact disc version includes a biographical book and the extra tracks, plus a significant amount of the early Seymour songs and a few rehearsal snippets. It’s a great time for a shrewd rocker to reclaim the records they missed the first time around. Of course, Blur deserves the fancy repress treatment. A band like this can't be judged by their singles alone no matter how good or bad they are. These albums will only drift into the heads of new fans if they get another chance to revisit the pieces as a whole.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy