The career of this arch cadre of middle-class art-school grads from Colchester (though the band took shape in London in the late ’80s and was originally known as Seymour) has unfolded with such intense speed that you’d swear you were experiencing Blur’s evolution via some sort of time-lapse technology. In the process of its giddy genre-jumping, however, the quartet has matured into a potent (if occasionally backward-looking) force on the Britpop scene, with singer Damon Albarn emerging as the ’90s heir to the social-commentator-cum-curmudgeon throne variously held by Ray Davies, Pete Townshend and Paul Weller.
The semi-diverting Leisure positioned Blur on the milder (read: less self-destructive) end of the dance-pop revival scene dominated by such pharmaceutically enhanced spirits as Happy Mondays. The “baggy” crowd never fully embraced the band, however, and bubbly confections like “There’s No Other Way” and “She’s So High” (both of which bobble along to the omnipresent Manchester groove) proved to have very limited shelf lives.
When the band reappeared, it was as old-school mods with all the accouterments: scooters, parkas, even carefully practiced Cockney accents. It would be easy to dismiss Modern Life Is Rubbish as dilettantish, except that it stands up astonishingly well on its own merits. Sure, you’ve heard slices of working-class life like “Pressure on Julian” and “Chemical World” before, but Graham Coxon’s jagged, post-punk guitar lines and Albarn’s clever sociological commentary elevate them above revival-band mediocrity. Blur gets bonus points for assembling a comprehensive package, complete with Who Sell Out-styled fake adverts and a lyric booklet that also incorporates the chord changes for aspiring musos.
Parklife, which elevated Blur to superstar status across Europe, is quite a bit more multi-dimensional in terms of sound, encompassing everything from jaunty Eurodisco (on the coolly insinuating “Girls and Boys,” a single that satirizes the ambisexual debauchery on the UK spring break circuit) to the Cockney-speak title track (which boasts narrationadrophenia star Phil Daniels). The really important development, however, is the maturation of Albarn’s steadfastly Anglocentric deadpan observations, which cut cleanly through the jostle of punky guitars, lush strings and faux-soul arrangements. Despite the dour outlook — “Bank Holiday” practically revels in Britain’s state of diminished socio-economic expectations — Parklife brims with the sort of pub-ready melodies that evoke images of sturdy dole-queue denizens packing their evenings with hard-won fun. A strikingly adult record — one that stands head and shoulders above the perpetually adolescent angst so common in ’90s pop — Parklife merits inclusion on the short list of truly compelling concept albums.
Parklife’s success obviously gave Blur an emphatic confidence boost, inspiring the group to redouble its efforts to switch American labels and gain free rein to record The Great Escape to its own creative specifications. Again, Albarn sets his sights on British society, but on this wryly named disc, he takes on characters with whom he’s more intimately familiar-the more well-heeled suburbanites of his youth. In “Stereotypes,” the strident “Mr. Robinson’s Quango” and the mockingly peppy “Charmless Man,” these ostensible model citizens sneak off for interludes of extramarital sex and drug abuse; lovingly detailed character sketches like “Ernold Same” and “Dan Abnormal” are so vivid a courtroom artist would have little trouble drawing perfect images of their subjects. The music’s growth continues apace, most evidently on “The Universal,” a grandiose (but not over-inflated) ballad that sweeps up even jaded types as it soars toward the millennium with wistful pessimism.