Saturday, 18 May 2013

Album Review: Blur - 13

Before you dig into this article, a few things are worth mentioning. First off, this is the first thing I started writing last year (2012). I intended for it to be published here on the blog but it took up way too much of my time and despite this I wasn't at all happy with the finished piece. A few months later, the ONM forum based web-mag Stream was launched, and I decided to refine this article and publish it in the second issue of Stream as my first music review. All in all, after going over it, I still felt that the review could've been a little shorter, but I figured, after about a year in the drafts section of my Blogger dashboard, now would be as good a time as any to publish it on here. Enjoy my review of 13 by Blur.

13, first released in 1995, was recorded during a number of tensions surrounding one of Britain's most famed bands. Singer Damon Albarn had recently split up with the love of his life, Graham Coxon suffered from emotional stress and heavy drinking problems, and tensions between these two frontmen clashed due to personal differences, a struggle that still stands nowadays. Albarn had also moved in with artist Jamie Hewlett at the time, an act that would later spawn Gorillaz, a project that undeniably proved to be much more successful than Coxon's solo works. In basic terms, a number of emotional frictions were in effect before and during the production of what at the time was looking to be the band's final work.

If the album I'm reviewing today proves anything, it's that pouring negative emotions into song writing often makes for a particularly successful recipe. The outcome of the band's struggles at the time was this release, quite possibly their most sophisticated yet at the time, and certainly my personal favourite to this date. There's a heavy avant-rock theme going on in this loosely-conceptualised set of 13 songs that makes Damon and the crew appear to have constructed a slightly Radiohead-esque album, not to say that they ripped that band off in any way. It's much more than a pebble's throw away from the likes of Leisure, Parklife and The Great Escape, however, cementing itself as the odd one out in Blur's discography; the black sheep; the not-so ugly duckling. And yes, 13 makes even Think Tank appear no less tame than Blur's britpop beginnings. Now there's a feat. Despite this, 13 is actually exactly what one would expect from a band called Blur: A perfectly fazed, spaced-out smudge of an album, an effect mainly down to some truly excellent production by William Orbit.

But just how good is this release - One formed from heartbreak, raging emotions and the numerical transformation of the first letter of the band's name? Did it turn out far too out-there to be considered of a high quality, or is it Blur's finest hour? Continue on and find out, dear reader, as we explore the ravenous, twisted, spacey wall of sound presented by 13...

1. Tender - 13's opener is, put simply, a beautiful, melancholically brilliant opening track, one that captures the essence of the album's key conceptualisation right off the bat. Albarn's chanting and sarcastic, moody descriptions of so-called perks of love are repeated countless times throughout the seven minutes, as the whole song consists only of a number of recurrent verses. Through this, it expresses the emotions poured into 13 particularly well, and the track as a whole, though some might argue is a bit stretched out, cements itself a fantastic opener. An undeniable highlight.

2. Bugman - The proponent track found on 13 is one that piqued my interest through the roof, not to mention the activity of my ears, the first time I heard it. The best word I can come up with to describe this one is, well, broken. It's the first song on the album in which the phenomenal production shines through, featuring messy, wrecked riffs and, oddly, what I'm certain is a sample of a power drill at one point. We never heard this sort of thing on Parklife, that's for sure. A truly intriguing track if I ever heard one, and one that's so metaphorically smashed that it comes across as ingenious and doesn't go so far as to sound in any way annoying (although I wouldn't recommend it if you have a headache). This song precedes a rather awesome-sounding interval, too, the first of many you'll hear on the album. It comes in the form of a simple but ear-raising collection of riffs, again showing-off the outstanding production work that has been put into 13.

3. Coffee & TV - To this day, 13's third effort stands tall as one of my all-time favourite Blur tracks, and while the same could be said for a number of the inclusions on this album, this one in particular stands out for a number of reasons. Like Tender and 13's penultimate track, I originally heard this song on Blur's own 'Best of' compilation. I didn't half-expect to hear it on here, though, due to the contrasting lightheartedness of the song. Following its original inclusion on this album, however, Coffee & TV is followed by another unlisted interval, one that makes you feel like you've just listened to something 'wrong', as if it does fit perfectly alongside the darker tracks in the track listing. As for the song itself, it's catchy, mellow and layered, featuring some ear-pleasing vocals. This is definitely another album highlight, despite the fact that it feels like something of a white sheep among a herd of black ones.

4. Swamp Song - The standout aspect of this track, in my opinion, is the ridiculously catchy guitar riff that is strummed throughout the majority of the 4:36 it is included in, paired with the excellent effects created from it in the song's production phase. This key element is ground zero for this song, on which the track's other aspects, such as Damon's lyrical efforts and the fazed sampling, are built upon. Without this, Swamp Song would feel nothing but incomplete. The song as a whole is great, too, but its key element is undeniably the standout of this opus. I could honestly listen to that riff for hours on end. Moving onwards...

5. 1992 - Track five of thirteen actually happens to have a fairly interesting story behind it, one that formed the reasoning behind its title. A demo recorded by the band's frontman in, you guessed it, 1992 (that's seven years prior to this album's release) and misplaced for a number of years until it was found again and included in the album I happen to be reviewing right now. And it's a good thing Damon found it prior to 13's release, because it fits in absolutely perfectly, and is easily a highlight in my view. The acoustics and tempo changes, paired with emotion-packed vocals from Damon and Coxon, project an image of monochromatic spaciness, as I can best describe it. This isn't the heaviest track on the album, but it's a fantastic one nonetheless.

6. B.L.U.R.E.M.I - Following on from the emotional 1992, we're thrown right back into upbeat territory. Don't bother asking me what this song's title stands for, because I have next to no clue. What I do know, however, is that B.L.U.R.E.M.I continues the trend set by Swamp Song and Bugman before it by demonstrating more of William Orbit's blurry production, as well as Coxon's skillful guitar playing. The track as a whole feels like it could be placed somewhere between alternative rock and pop, featuring upbeat singing (as well as a booming gorgon voice shouting the seven words that make up the title of the track) mashed up in a genre blender with heavy instrumentals. Speaking of heaviness, things don't get much more so than the next track...

7. Battle - For me, the main thing that makes 13 stand out from Blur's previous works is just how difficult it can be to listen to. I don't mean that in a negative sense - None of the album's thirteen tracks are anywhere near annoying or of a poor quality - But in a reassuring kind of way, that the album is so packed full of emotion that it goes so far as to convey your mood. This is quite a feat, as the album gets the balance perfectly with its surprisingly well-done mood shifting between tracks. Track seven, simply titled 'Battle', is quite possibly the perfect track to demonstrate this conveyance of emotion. Bugman was praised heavily for its eclectic sampling, and this track received a similar response from critics for its aforementioned emotional impact. It's a simplistic song, with Damon's chanting of a single word making up the majority of the lyrical aspect, but once again, it's the noises you hear within the track that make it what it is, with mellow chimes and heavy avant-rock being the star of the show in Battle. Yet another highlight, without a doubt.

8. Mellow Song - The first thing that sprouted into to my mind when I initially heard this particular song was, "Hang on, is that a sample of Damon crying?" Yes, Mellow Song is another emotion-packed installment included in 13's track-listing, and it's a pretty good one, too. I wouldn't call it a stand-out track, but when it has so much competition in vein of its similar concept, you can't really fault it. Mellow Song can be best summed-up as just that: A light-hearted, mellow ambience... Only one that develops into something much heavier about half-way through. So far so good, but 13's next track may be considered something of a combo-breaker...

9. Trailerpark - Honestly, this track is the only one included in 13 that I'm not overly fond of. It's not a bad song by any means, but it is basically filler. The fact that it was originally recorded for South Park's Chef Aid album, but rejected (yes, really) only confirms this. I can't help but feel that Trailerpark was included just for the sake of pushing the number of tracks on 13 up to that exact number, and while it's clearly been remastered to sound more fitting for the concept of the album, it's like some kind of half-black, half-white sheep among its peers. I wouldn't go as far to skip past it on a listen of the album, but I look forward to it finishing, and that's not exactly a good sign. So yeah, not a bad song, but I would've definitely preferred something more fitting for 13's concepts.

10. Caramel - Caramel is easily one of the most moving pieces of music 13 has to offer, fittingly neatly alongside Tender, 1992, Battle and at this point the upcoming No Distance Left to Run. It's not difficult to guess that the basis of this song is Damon's break-up, and I must say it's probably the most effective track on the album, with the possible exception of Battle. Albarn keeps repeating verses along the lines of, "I've got to get over, I've got to get better" paired with other rhyming couplets to stitch it all together, and when these vocals are added to the fantastic track in the background it all comes together as an absolutely brilliant finished product. Oh, and the two unlisted outros to this track? Well, they can't be described as anything other than food for the ears, contrasting perfectly like a compressed version of the entirety of the album. This track as a whole is definitely yet another highlight included in 13's repertoire.

11. Trimm Trabb - Despite being a song about Adidas trainers, the oddly titled Trimm Trabb fits in perfectly alongside 13's more serious inclusions, unlike a certain Trailerpark. Following a 30-second intro that can only be described as an audible oddity, Albarn begins to sing about aforementioned trainers, perfectly complimenting the other noises you'll hear in this track. Like many of its predecessors in terms of the album's tracklisting, Trimm Trabb does make a slight light to heavy transition, which makes it feel a tad uninspired. However, this doesn't detract from the quality of the song as a standalone piece of work, and despite its strange subject matter, it fits in very well alongside the more moody pieces found on this album. Speaking of which...

12. No Distance Left to Run - While it is factually 13's penultimate track, the aptly named No Distance Left to Run is essentially the last full-on song you'll hear on the album, contrasting perfectly with its intro, Tender. While that track was essentially about Damon's refusal to believe his relationship's breakage, and Caramel was about getting over it, the album's almost-finale is essentially the last step in musical form. This one's another rather simple inclusion in terms of the instrumental side of things, at least when compared to songs with samples of power-drills laid on top of them, but it's a fantastic track nonetheless. We're not quite done yet, though.

13. Optigan 1 - This ending track of 13 can only be compared to the various unlisted intervals I've mentioned throughout this review, albeit not absent from the track-listing. If I'm honest, I can't really describe this one thoroughly. It's a haunting loop that compliments the entirety of the previous hour's worth of emotion-packed - at times difficult to listen to - wall of sound. An interesting outro that's difficult to flaw, let alone a haunting track that captures the essence of this brilliant album. In short, this one closes the album up full-circle in a brilliantly minimalistic manner.

If one were to be rude, they would state that Damon's heart-breaking split with Elastica singer Justine Frischmann spawned something particularly positive for his band, and that happens to be 13. This is one of those albums I could listen to again and again without skipping a track, which for something so headache-inducing is wholly impressive. The hidden instrumental intervals (most of which I haven't even discussed to save space), the emotion-packed lyrical icing, the loose conceptualisation of it all - it's just utter brilliance from start to finish despite the odd contrast of some tracks and the minor bump that comes in the form of track nine. As if all the positive synopses above haven't cemented my recommendation of 13 enough, here's a few last words before I close off this review: Not only is 13 hands down the band's magnum-opus to this date in my personal opinion, it's also conclusive proof that positives can come from negatives, or in the context of this synopsis, that your greatest creation can be the birth-child of the worst thing in the world if executed correctly. And yes, Blur absolutely executed this correctly.

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