Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish – Classic Music Review

Modern Life Is Rubbish would have appeared in my Britpop series if it hadn’t been for that damned skinhead controversy. From Wikipedia:

Modern Life Is Rubbish was released in May 1993. The announcement of the album’s release included a press photo which featured Blur, dressed in a mix of mod and skinhead attire, posing alongside a mastiff with the words “British Image 1” spraypainted behind them. At the time, such imagery was viewed as nationalistic and racially insensitive by the British music press; to quieten concerns, Blur released the “British Image 2” photo, which was “a camp restaging of a pre-war aristocratic tea party”.

I would have had to waste a lot of blog space explaining my way through that crap, diverting attention from the overall narrative. It was a dumb thing for Blur to do, given their already questionable standing with the British press, who had dismissed them as “bogus trend-hoppers” trying to latch on to the dying Madchester scene. It was a really dumb thing to do because they were also £60,000 in debt, had completely bombed in an extensive tour of the United States and were on notice from their record company that they had to produce something of commercial value pretty darned quick or find themselves out on their collective arses.

There is an old saying, “Great music conquers every ill.” Actually, there is no such saying: I just made it up. Nonetheless, the adage certainly applies to Blur because Modern Life Is Rubbish is so good that it saved their careers and turned skeptical listeners into happy campers. The turn towards socially-conscious, British-centric music in the tradition of Ray Davies and Paul Weller suited their talents, and the stylistic change from Madchester to solid rock played to their musical strengths. Though somewhat compromised by record company demands and a few questionable choices, Modern Life Is Rubbish is a vibrant, cheeky, ass-kicking experience.

If only they’d consulted me on track order, the album could have been so much better. Wait a sec . . . let me count . . . oops . . . I was only eleven years old when the album was released, so I guess I wouldn’t have been much help with the layout and probably would have developed a crush on Alex James. Hereby amended: If I could use Mr. Peabody’s WABAC machine to transport me back to early 1993, I would have told the band that they were about to make a big track-ordering mistake but that the problem could be fixed in a jiffy: move the opening track to the end and all the other tracks up one notch.

“For Tomorrow” is essentially an okay song damaged by serious over-production. It didn’t exist when Blur submitted their work to Food Records owner David Balfe, a truly villainous presence in this story. He rejected the album, told them they were committing artistic suicide and demanded more singles. Poor Damon Albarn had to give up his Christmas Eve to please his master and came up with “For Tomorrow.” Though written under protest, the song isn’t half bad, a more-than-competent slice of London life. The last two verses are not only very well-written but also gave the album its title:

Jim stops and gets out the car,
Goes to a house in Emperor’s Gate,
Through the door and to his room,
Then he puts the TV on,
Turns it off and makes some tea,
Says “Modern life, well, it’s rubbish”
I’m holding on for tomorrow,

Then Susan comes into the room,
She’s a naughty girl with a lovely smile,
Says let’s take a drive to Primrose Hill,
It’s windy there and the view’s so nice,
London ice can freeze your toes
Like anyone I suppose
I’m holding on for tomorrow . . .

All very well and good, but the melody is strained, the la-la-la-la’s that form the chorus nothing more than placeholders and . . . whoever made the decision to add strings to the arrangement deserves life imprisonment with no chance of parole. The music doesn’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album, but . . . if you make it the closer, it takes the role of the song that tells you where Blur is headed next (a notion initially applied by Thom Yorke to Radiohead albums). Dump the strings, stick it in the back and the emergence of the album title at this late juncture beautifully summarizes all that has come before. The title itself demands such placement.

Such a move places “Advert” in the opening slot, a song that makes a clean and decisive break with the shoegaze-Madchester sound of their first album, Leisure. The patched-in voice of an American announcer proclaiming “Food processors are great!” fits perfectly with the theme contained in the album title and what follows is not the meandering sound of their maiden release but a band seriously intent on kicking ass. After a cheerful introductory build, Graham Coxon arrives with a series of slashing power chords, leading the band in a memory-erasing all-out bash. As Damon Albarn waits in the wings, you wonder how they’re going to connect such delightfully rough music to food processors, but when Damon arrives on stage in the guise of a bloke waiting for the next Underground train, it all becomes crystal clear:

It’s six o’clock on the dot and I’m halfway home
I feel foul-mouthed as I stand and wait for the underground
And a nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
I need something to remind me that there’s something else

You need a holiday somewhere in the sun
With all the people who are waiting
There never seems to be one
Say something, say something else
Say something, say something else

The chord change from the A-G pattern to Bm-F#-A-G in the chorus is absolutely thrilling, with Albarn lowering his pitch to intensify the effect. It’s logical to assume that “you need a holiday somewhere in the sun” comes from an advert posted in the station, the empty something to remind the man of “something else,” an assumption confirmed later in the song. As is so often true in modern life, advertising is equally likely to produce revulsion instead of the intended effect to entice the viewer into pissing away their money. Our man in the subway is wise to the con, and knows that the failure of an ad to address one “need” ironically creates another “need” for which advertising has a ready-made solution (of course):

Advertisements are here for rapid persuasion
If you stare too long you lose your appetite
A nervous disposition doesn’t agree with this
You need fast relief from aches and stomach pains

Our hero tries to get the ads out of his head by counting away the time, but the ad has planted a small voice in his brain to remind him of the holiday, this time attached to a “special offer!” By this time, we can all empathize with his aching desire for the ads to “Say something else!” “Advert” is a great opener that deserved the top slot, and when I listen to the album on my nano, I change the track order on iTunes to put the world right.

The disastrous U. S. tour did have the positive effect of getting Damon Albarn hooked on Ray Davies, and the album features some rock-oriented character sketches similar to what you’d find on a Golden Period Kinks album. The first is “Colin Zeal,” which opens with a rolling bass run from Alex James that prefaces a simple Dm-Am chord progression attached to a latin-tinged beat. The rhythm is then overlaid with a Graham Coxon solo featuring disciplined use of the wah-wah pedal. Damon Albarn’s vocal is delivered in a flat, matter-of-fact tone as he describes a man obsessed with fitting in:

Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal
He’s a pedestrian walker, he’s a civil talker
He’s an affable man with a plausible plan
Keeps his eye on the news, keeps his future in hand

A brief caesura marked by the phrase “And then he . . .” leads us into the chorus, where key and tempo changes herald the significance of what Colin considers his most important achievement:

Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
Looks at his watch, he’s on time yet again
He’s pleased with himself, he’s pleased with himself
He’s so pleased with himself, ah ha

I die laughing every time, and I love the way Blur shifts seamlessly from latin to rock in verse and chorus.

The title of “Pressure on Julian” gives one hope of another witty character sketch, but alas, it’s a bad inside joke involving Julian Cope, the lead singer of The Teardrop Explodes. Cope’s musical collaborator during their heyday was none other than David Balfe, and apparently Damon Albarn liked to insert references to Julian because it “drove him bananas.” The sophomoric motivation wastes an interesting piece of music, with Coxon’s guitar sounding like a malfunctioning siren and Alex James thumping away with all his might.

“Star Shaped” takes us back to the existential challenges of modern humanity with a character who is hoping for a future as an “unconscious man” where he can revel in the feeling of being unnecessary, fully interchangeable with another organic unit. The voices in his head (manifested in trailing responses sung in falsetto) encourage him to follow this hopeless course of action by telling the bloke he’s “star-shaped,” i.e., has the right DNA to make a real splash in the world (likely echoes of corporate bullshit). This is a pretty accurate representation of the psychological state of many in the workforce, who know in their hearts that climbing the corporate ladder is a completely meaningless effort and that “starring” in such a role both requires and results in an unconscious state where learned behavior conquers native intelligence. Musically, the song is marked by dramatic and demanding chord shifts in different keys, so if you’re looking to increase your chord change speed and improve your fretboard dexterity, look up the tabs online and have at it. But before you go there, listen to one of the loveliest oboe solos on record, courtesy of the well-traveled, multi-instrumentalist Ms. Kate St. John.

While the routine of modern life can be soul-draining, it also has the advantage of comfortable and comforting predictability. This is the slant taken in the song “Blue Jeans,” a more melancholy look at the issue of psychological survival. The opening drum pattern from Dave Rowntree foreshadows a Phil Spector-like arrangement with its deep thumps and echoes, but the song turns out to be one of the gentler songs on the record, marked by a not-quite mid-tempo rhythm with smoothly syncopated punctuation, morose-sounding keyboards, imbalanced lines in the verses, and a gorgeous melodic line supported by plethora of tasteful chord changes. The narrator is a shy and awkward sort, the kind of guy you never notice at the open-air markets or anywhere else for that matter. He admirably takes pleasure in the small blessings of the humdrum:

Air cushioned soles
I bought them on the Portobello Road on a Saturday
I stop and stare awhile
A common pastime when conversation goes astray

And don’t think I’m walking out of this

She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say
I don’t really want to change a thing
I want to stay this way forever

An uplifting note of triumph comes from an organ at a higher pitch between verses, a sort of ironic validation of the man’s choices. The second verse indicates he’s fully aware of the risks of banality, just like the “unconscious man” in “Star Shaped”:

Blue, blue jeans I wear them every day
There’s no particular reason to change
My thoughts are getting banal,
I can’t help it but I won’t pull out hair another day

By this point in the song, the arrangement has taken on more texture with Graham Coxon’s guitar moving to the fore, but remarkably, the melancholy mood isn’t compromised but intensified. A quick, rising riff from Coxon cues the song’s bridge, a slight variation from the main theme that seamlessly blends with the chorus:

You know it will be with you
And don’t give up on me yet

Don’t think I’m walking out of this

She don’t mind
Whatever I say, whatever I say . . .

That passage makes me want to reach out and hug the guy and make all his insecurities go away. While Blur is certainly accomplished at the skeptical-cynical perspective on life, let us not forget that they could activate empathy as well, with often beautiful results.

Next up are two of the singles from the album. “Chemical World” was another track commissioned by the record company masters, this time the American contingent. The power chords are grunge but the dominant beat is positively bouncy and un-grunge-like. Graham Coxon has a good time with some sweet filler riffs and fulfilling the lead role in the call-and-response vocals with Albarn. It’s a solid rocker that was understandably chosen as one of the singles, but the lyrics fall short of conveying a meaning that comes anywhere near impactful. Tacked on to the end is an “Intermission” that is best described by the phrase “boys will be boys.”

“Sunday Sunday” falls somewhere between a thumping rocker and a tune played by the town band perched in the gazebo on the village square; with a little imagination and a downward adjustment in power, the song would fit quite nicely into Village Green Preservation Society. Keeping with the theme of routine, the song describes the narcotic effects of the typical Sunday meal and the traditional boring activities of walks in the park and Sunday night bingo. Everyone in this song falls asleep from an overdose of food or old age, but Blur is a good enough band to keep the listener awake, ramping up the tempo midway through the song for a little boost. I would have chosen “Advert” or “Blue Jeans” over “Sunday Sunday” for the single release, but the song definitely fits in with Blur’s desire to produce British-centric music.

“Oily Water” was singled out by critics for echoing Blur’s short-lived shoegaze era, but I’ll just say right now that I love the sound of those chords, shimmering in so much vibrato that they seem out of sync with conventional notions of time. Albarn sings through a filter similar to the one used by John Lennon on “Tomorrow Never Knows” to mimic the sound of “the Dalai Lama singing from a mountaintop.” The lyrics aren’t half as memorable, though, and the arrangement gets too dark and heavy for the content.

The working title for the album was Britain Versus America, a message in itself but more colorfully explained by Alex James: “It was fucking scary how American everything’s becoming . . . so the whole thing was a fucking big two fingers up to America.” When I was old enough to pick up on the anti-Americanism I experienced when traveling to Europe to see the relatives, I remember feeling hurt (I think I was about twelve) and demanded an explanation from my mother (most of the shit came from the French, not the Irish). She responded by giving me a thorough history lesson, but when she was finished, my dad summed it up in a more pithy manner.

“Most Americans are alright, but we have more than our fair share of assholes who make the rest of us look bad.”

Blur avoided direct commentary on the American scene, and since they all left the States with a bad taste in their mouths, that was probably a good idea. What we get instead is “Miss America,” a song spare on lyrics but full of musical imagery that gets the point across. The exceptionally relaxed music consists of little more than acoustic guitar and claves and sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber, the perfect environment for an intellectually-challenged beauty who goes through life with people constantly telling her how wonderful she is. She begins the song sitting in the shower “plucking hours from the sky,” makes a phone call, wishes people well with infinite sweetness and politely engages in empty conversation with well-wishers (“Here is here and I am here, where are you?”). There really isn’t much more, which I believe is the point. Miss America is a symbol of a culture that is all surface, no substance and anything but genuine.

Blur now shifts to overdrive with three solid rockers in a row. “Villa Rosie” doesn’t exist in the real world, and the unusual chord structure suggests that if it were a real-life watering hole, you’d find it somewhere far off the beaten path. The lyrics aren’t much help in describing the ambiance or the clientele, leading me to believe this was another inside joke among the band members, similar to “Pressure on Julian.” The guitar work is definitely on the exuberant side, and the “woo-hoos” add to the playfulness of the piece.

“Coping” is the strongest of the three, combining hard rock drive fueled by the combination of electric and acoustic guitar hammering out the chords. The lyrics are coherent and interesting, covering the fuck-it level ennui later explored in the context of suburban life in “Tracy Jacks.” We’ll start our psychoanalysis of the song with the definition of “coping mechanisms” from goodtherapy.org:

Coping mechanisms are the strategies people often use in the face of stress and/or trauma to help manage painful or difficult emotions. Coping mechanisms can help people adjust to stressful events while helping them maintain their emotional well-being.

With modern life designed to produce more stressors than most humans can handle, coping mechanisms are seen as valuable tools to help us get through the day . . . but pay careful attention to the underlying assumption. Coping mechanisms are necessary because human beings are unable or unwilling to fix the problems that lead us to booze, drugs, cigarettes, medication, meditation or a million other temporary fixes. “Coping” calls that assumption into question:

It’s a sorry state you’re getting in
The same excuse is wearing thin
There’s no self control left in me
What was not will never will be
And I’m too tired to care about it
Can’t you see this in my face, my face
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?
When I feel this strange can I go through this again?

(…Or am I just coping?)

The high heat of the smoking guitars is somewhat offset by wild synthesizer runs, adding a bit of wackiness to the piece. I would have preferred a Coxon solo in the instrumental break, but the synthesizer does have the advantage of adding to the feeling of mental instability that runs through the lyrics.

“Turn It Up” has a palpable resemblance to the more melodic Oasis songs, and from a musical perspective, it’s one of the best pop-rock tracks Blur ever did. But the lyrics . . . what the fuck?

Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x2)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you get too much, some days it all gets too much

Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, why do you turn your back on me?
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)
Anyway you choose, anyway you choose at all
Some days you do too much, some days it all gets too much
Kazoo, kazoo you are mine, kazoo kazoo every time
Turn it up, turn it off, turn it in (x4)

Seriously, boys, the melody and chord structure deserved a far better fate than this.

My final piece of evidence in favor of changing the track order to place “For Tomorrow” at the end is the actual album closer, “Resigned.” The music is dull, dull, dull, the lyrics say nothing much and the track goes on and on and on long after the two short verses fade into memory. Once the song finally gives up the ghost, Blur inserts a “Commercial Break” where the boys take out all their testosterone on their unsuspecting instruments. Yes, boys will be boys, but I suppose they deserved some release after all they’d gone through to make this record.

Damon Albarn’s retrospective view on the creation of Modern Life Is Rubbish is a valuable lesson in motivation: “Suede and America fuelled my desire to prove to everyone that Blur were worth it. There was nothing more important in my life.”  The dumb ass sentiments featured on Successory products won’t supply a hundredth of the motivation of a threat to one’s existence or identity. Though I think he was too hard on Brett Anderson (and that his views were skewed by personal noise), Suede and America provided the foils he and the band needed to up their game. What’s wonderful about Modern Life Is Rubbish is the way Blur responded to that threat—not by getting serious, but by getting playful.

3 responses

  1. Very underrated album–their best imho. They aren’t yet self-conscious in a bad way, they aren’t too eclectic, Coxon’s guitar is amazing without getting too perverse, and the songs are retro without being redundant. Parklife doesn’t hold together, and I’m with Damon on The Great Escape.

    And without getting into a slapfight, I love Resigned. Just replace Turn It Up with Poplife and the record is a wonderful little out-of-time gem. I heard it at a formative age and perhaps it biases me, but with as much distance I can get, it still crushes everything else they did.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents. Real reason for commenting is two other Cope connections:

    1. Kate St. John played the lovely cor anglais on Cope’s Sunspots.
    2. Colin Zeal owes a *lot* to Teardrop Explode’s Sleeping Gas.

    “And you can watch Rafferty turn into a serial…” I don’t normally think of Julian and Damon living anywhere near the same space, so the overlap is just sort of odd.

    Anyway, any chance of getting some Luke Haines & Auteurs reviews here?

    Like

  2. Brendan T Spaulding | Reply

    Ive always found it weird how much this album clicks for me. The band was still very young, and had just made a pretty big leap in style. They were still not fully themselves yet, having a sound still very much influenced by XTC sonically (so much so that they initially got XTC frontman Andy partridge to produce the record) and they were still heavily influenced by ray davies lyrically. Their sound wasnt as developed or refined as it would be on 13, and damon still had a long ways to go before his lyrical peak on demon days, but they still made a really great album that still holds up today.

    Everything was against them on this album but id go as far to say that its my second favorite by them next to 13, its really incredible, if not a bit flawed. I pretty much agree with all your points made on the production side of things, for tomorrow couldve at least been ok if it werent so overblown. Also I’d like to say that ive felt that youve gotten better at making me interested in your writing more and more, and ive started reading reviews about albums I dont even give a shit about, good stuff, cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting and insightful conclusion in the final sentence of this review.

    Like

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