A breakthrough album fifteen years in the making . . . the culmination of a long road that wound and unwound several times, snaking off in a myriad of directions . . . a journey of starts and stops that led at least one member to believe “that I’d misspent my youth in a crap retro band when I could have had a proper job.”
Fortunately for posterity, Russell Senior and the other members of Pulp hung in there long enough for the breaks to finally fall their way. The Pulp before His ‘N’ Hers showed flashes of brilliance but also a stubborn inconsistency that cooled major label interest. Two years prior to the album’s release, Pulp finally revealed indications of a signature sound and style in the form of a couple of well-received singles that caught the attention of Island Records, giving the band the opportunity to reach a wider audience—an opportunity multiplied to the nth degree by their good fortune to have stumbled onto the emerging Britpop scene.
The primary weakness of His ‘N’ Hers (as noted in my review of Different Class) is technical—the mix isn’t clean enough to properly separate Jarvis Cocker’s voice and give it the clarity it deserves. A good set of headphones pretty much resolves that problem, allowing the listener to thoroughly enjoy Cocker’s witty tales and keen insight into socio-cultural dynamics. The compositions on His ‘N’ Hers feel more disciplined and intentional than their earlier work, and though the album still retains some of the synth pop/dance sound that marked Separations, there is greater integration of keyboards, guitar and bass to balance things out and give the music more muscle.
“Joyriders” is a composition combining two distinct moods, one in the verses and one in the bridge. I’d characterize the verse mood as “drunkenly playful with underlying tension,” largely formed by Steve Mackey’s growling bass and Nick Banks’ loose drumming. Here Jarvis answers the age-old question, “What do teenage boys do when puberty’s flood of testosterone disables brain cell development?” “Stupid shit,” responds Mr. Cocker, albeit in more insightful language:
We can’t help it, we’re so thick we can’t think,
Can’t think of anything but shit, sleep and drink.
Oh, and we like women;
“Up the women” we say,
And if we get lucky,
We might even meet some one day.
Oh you, you in the Jesus sandals,
Wouldn’t you like to come
Over and watch some vandals smashing up someone’s home?
If I didn’t know that this song was written when the Internet was still in its infancy, I would have assumed that the song was about incels, those “involuntary celibates” who inhabit an ugly corner of cyberspace where discussion is “often characterized by resentment, misogyny, misanthropy, self-pity and self-loathing, racism, a sense of entitlement to sex, and the endorsement of violence against sexually active people (Wikipedia).” While we may laugh at the punch line, “And if we get lucky/We might even meet some one day,” boys like those depicted here and in the incel community embrace their toxic masculinity, representing a real danger to the social fabric.
That danger is expressed best in the music of the bridge, which follows an abrupt halt to the driving music of the verses. Though Pulp has slowed the tempo and adjusted the chord pattern, what’s most important from a compositional perspective is what they didn’t change—the general chord structure of opening with a C major chord while ending with the slightly-off B major chord, one long half-step away from resolution. The tension created by that out-of-place chord is tripled in the various recitations of the bridge, forming moments like those scenes in horror flicks when instead of running away from danger, the dumb ass heads straight for the closed door. Things get really creepy in the last go-round when Jarvis whispers the first two lines then lowers his voice on the truncated closing line (I love Candida Doyle’s eerie piano sequence here). The exhibitionist phrase “don’t you want to come and see?” is gone, placing all the focus on the tragedy:
Mister, we just want your car,
‘Cause we’re taking a girl to the reservoir.
Oh, all the papers say,
It’s a tragedy
We’re not sure what kind of tragedy occurred at one of the many reservoirs surrounding Sheffield, but rape and/or murder would be a safe bet. “Joyriders” may have seemed an odd choice for an opening number, but we live in a world where horror films featuring gruesome murders qualify as “camp” and unspeakable crimes sell newspapers and increase ratings. I hope that more than a few listeners were able to get past the sensationalistic aspects of the song and really take in the more serious underlying message.
Jarvis Cocker offered us two interpretational paths to “Lipgloss,” the first single released from the album. The cheekier comment (“‘Lipgloss’ was specifically about social skills going rusty. That and the fear of large shopping malls like Meadowhall in Sheffield”) isn’t much help. The more sober and meaningful observation is found in Mark Sturdy’s Truth and Beauty: The Story of Pulp:
The title came from a story I heard about an anorexic girl who used to eat only lipgloss. And the rest of the song—about a girl who has her self-confidence bashed down by a bad relationship—is based on someone I know. I think it’s important to express those stories so that victims know they’re not the only ones suffering.
The funny thing about “Lipgloss” is that the music supports the cheekier comment with its almost carnival-like synth-heavy instrumentation creating a devil-may-care, whirling effect. By contrast, the lyrics support Cocker’s more sober and empathetic translation:
And you feel such a fool,
For laughing at bad jokes,
And putting up with all of his friends,
And kissing in public.
What are they gonna say when they run into you again?
That your stomach looks bigger and your hair is a mess,
And your eyes are just holes in your face.
And it rains every day,
And when it doesn’t,
The sun makes you feel worse anyway.
He changed his mind last Monday,
Now you’ve gotta leave by Sunday, yeah.
(Chorus) You’ve lost your lipgloss honey, oh yeah.
Now nothing you do can turn him on,
You had it once and now its gone.
Mark Sturdy saw the contrast differently: “. . . the thrilling, accusatory attack of the verses leads to a chorus that’s a bit over-poppy.” I don’t find the verses “thrilling” in the least—this girl is going through the trauma that always follows a woman’s attempt to base her self-worth on her ability to please a man. The fragility of her ego is highlighted by the not uncommon belief among women that beauty products are essential to attracting men and achieving social acceptance. Her story isn’t thrilling—when these façades collapse, it’s fucking embarrassing and painful. To my ears, the jarring conflict between music and lyrics reflects the jarring conflict between the real self and the fake self we present to the world in our pathetic search for validation from others.
“Acrylic Afternoons” is one of those peek-behind-the-curtains songs that would become a Jarvis Cocker specialty. Here he eschews the role of revenge-seeking voyeur he would play so well in “I Spy,” instead becoming an active participant in the naughty goings-on of the neighborhood:
Can I stay here,
Lying under the table together with you now?
Can I hold you?
Forever in acrylic afternoons
I want to hold you tight
Whilst children play outside
And wait for their mothers to finish with lovers
And call them inside for their tea.
It’s obvious he cherishes his role as lover as well as the delicious secrecy attached to an adulterous afternoon fuck, every sensation seared in his memory—and those impressions are quite poetic:
On a pink quilted eiderdown,
I want to pull your knickers down.
Net curtains blow slightly in the breeze.
Lemonade light filtering through the trees.
It’s so soft and it’s warm.
Just another cup of tea please (one lump thanks).
My only frustration with the song is I wanted more detail as to how he got her out of the green jumper and then from the settee to the floor and under the table. I’m envisioning some kind of “tumble to the ground” moment as in “I Think We’re Alone Now,” but I would have preferred the graphic specifics. Speaking of old songs from the 60’s, a comparison of “Acrylic Afternoons” to the Goffin-King creation “Pleasant Valley Sunday” is illuminating. Mickey Dolenz competently rattled off a stream of superficial suburban stereotypes (how’s that for alliteration?), but for all we know, mom was in the master bedroom banging her teenage son’s best friend while dad was busy slathering on the barbecue sauce. The people who live in Pleasant Valley are caricatures; the lovers in “Acrylic Afternoons” are delightfully wicked human beings forced into secrecy because of social and religious conventions. Evil they may be, but I like them a whole lot better.
Reprising his role as defender-savior of women in shitty relationships, Jarvis urges an unnamed woman to dump her controlling boyfriend in “Have You Seen Her Lately?” While I appreciate the sentiments, this song never really comes together musically or lyrically—the supporting music is too grand in the disco sense of the word and the lyrics lack the incisive wit of “Lipgloss.” To my ears, the arrangement resembles an update of a 60’s Walker Brothers number, so perhaps Jarvis’ admiration of Scott Walker got the best of him here.
Though the guitar duet featured in “Babies” is played by Cocker and Russell Senior, the chords originated with drummer Nick Banks, who was messing around with a guitar during a rehearsal break and strummed a chord combination he identified as “one of them is G, no idea what the other one is” (a Dmaj7, for the record). The combination caught Jarvis Cocker’s ear and “Literally 20 minutes after I’d played those first two chords, we had the entire song, basically.” As would later happen with “Common People” there was some initial squeamishness about “poppiness,” but fortunately for posterity, everyone got over it and a Pulp classic was born. Released as a single in 1992 and virtually ignored, “Babies” reappeared on His ‘N’ Hers and as an EP single that made the UK Top 20.
The arpeggiated chord combination and Russell Senior’s main guitar riff are irresistibly catchy, especially when Nick and Mark Webber kick in with the eminently danceable beat. If you can’t break into a smile during the instrumental intro to “Babies,” you’re either dead or an artistic snob of the highest order (pretty much the same thing). POPPY DOES NOT ALWAYS EQUATE TO LACKING SUBSTANCE. In this case, the lyrics are anything but poppy, for just like the legendary Cole Porter, Jarvis Cocker had the ability to imbue his stories-in-song with both wit and insight.
According to Flavorwire, Jarvis told the audience at Radio City Music Hall “that the song was essentially autobiographical” (although only he knows exactly how much is true).” I can certainly see him as a teen sitting in the hallway with his wannabe girlfriend suppressing giggles as they surreptitiously listened to the girl’s elder sister banging one of apparently many boys she lured to her bedroom. I can also believe that the experience was just an unsatisfying teaser for him and that of course he “wanted more”:
I wanted to see as well as hear,
And so I hid inside her wardrobe.
And she came ’round four,
And she was with some kid called David,
From the garage up the road.
I listened outside I heard her.
If that elder teenage sister was already fucking mechanics, I can guarantee you that she grew up and became an extremely successful dominatrix.
The chorus temporarily interrupts the tale to provide keen insight into the emotional stew of a pubescent teenager on libidinal overload. He simply doesn’t have the words to describe exactly what he’s feeling, so he resorts to a combination of extreme convention and oops-I-didn’t-really-mean-that:
Oh I want to take you home.
I want to give you children.
You might be my girlfriend, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Uh, you got things a little backwards there, dude. You better pray that daddy doesn’t own a shotgun.
The stud of the future doesn’t share his closeted escapade with the girl he intends to fill with babies, but allegedly follows her as she pops into the home of another guy “when his mum and dad were gone.” He claims he heard them laughing, but I think this entire passage is something he made up to provide justification for his closing act of bonking the sister (definitely NOT autobiographical, as Cocker didn’t wet his whistle until he was 19):
We were on the bed when you came home,
I heard you stop outside the door.
I know you won’t believe it’s true,
I only went with her ’cause she looks like you, my God!
That is the ultimate lame excuse—but so very, very true to life. Cocker’s narration is positively brilliant, adjusting his phrasing to express the range of pubescent emotion: embarrassment, denial, misdirected passion and the pathetic guilt of an unpracticed liar. Russell Senior is marvelous on guitar, offering up a varied mix of counterpoints in both the uptempo and quiet passages, and Candida’s multi-pronged keyboard contributions add to the theatre of it all.
The brilliance of “Babies” is sadly missing from the way-too-long “She’s a Lady,” and its resemblance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” doesn’t qualify as a tribute. I can definitely do without “Happy Endings,” a sort of torch song about a failed affair that doesn’t live up to its promise because it never had a promise to begin with.
There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding “Do You Remember the First Time?” largely due to the promotional strategy used to hawk the single. Let’s be clear: the song has little to do with Jarvis Cocker losing his virginity—it’s about a man expressing his frustration that his lover chooses to maintain a sexual relationship with another man. It’s possible that the woman in question was also his initial experience in the sack, but the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous on that score. To promote the song, Cocker came up with the idea of shooting a video filled with various British luminaries recalling their first-time fuck experiences, so a lot of people assumed that the song also dealt with that rite of passage.
Like most first-time bangs, the video is painfully anti-climactic and I can’t believe that anyone who managed to get through all twenty-six minutes of it rushed out and bought the single. The dullness of the film is understandable: the first time is usually a very awkward experience largely because we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, and recalling our incompetence isn’t a very pleasant trip down memory lane. I wrote about my first time in my four-part tale of my sexual development (since removed from the blog):
I had my first fuck the summer I turned fourteen. I decided on a guy I knew from school and invited him over to the house one summer day when my parents were at work. He lasted about a minute and a half and I never came close to orgasm. Still, the brief moment of other-worldliness piqued my interest enough to continue my pursuit of erotic pleasure.
The song itself is a showcase for the indirect and snarky communication that accompanies many a secretive affair, where the fundamental dishonesty of the act detracts from its enjoyment. Disappointed that his squeeze has to go home to papa, the narrator takes a few swipes at his rival while indirectly marketing his allegedly superior sexual prowess: “I know you’re gonna let him bore your pants off again” and (the real zinger) “Still you bought a toy that can reach the places he never goes.” There really isn’t much more to the tale than that, though controversy swirled over the line “No, I don’t care if you screw him/Just as long as you save a piece for me.” What’s sad is that the negative reaction to that line in some quarters had more to do with puritanic beliefs that such matters should not be aired in public rather than the more serious implication that the narrator views his lover as nothing more than a piece of ass. Musically, “Do You Remember the First Time?” features marvelously long builds to the repetitions of the chorus and a spirited vocal from Cocker, so I fully understand why it’s earned its status as the opener for Pulp reunion concerts.
I’m not exactly sure what motivated the inclusion of “Pink Glove” on the album, as it virtually repeats the scenario found in “Do You Remember the First Time?” (male competition for pussy) and suffers from muddied production. Even the best set of headphones on the planet won’t help you understand Jarvis Cocker’s muffled and muddled lyrics on “Someone Like the Moon,” and as a song exploring the phenomenon of loneliness, it ain’t exactly “Eleanor Rigby.”
The album proper ends with the largely spoken-word track “David’s Last Summer.” I’m not sure if this David is the same David who slipped it to the elder sister in “Babies,” but if it is, he became a crashing bore in the interlude. Consider this passage:
The room smells faintly of suntan lotion
In the evening sunlight and when you take off your clothes,
You’re still wearing a small pale skin bikini.
And then consider the fact that rather than allowing himself the pleasure of working up a good stiff one and putting it to immediate use, David decides to take the girl swimming. David! Do you know what cold water does to a dick? What the hell is the matter with you? Perhaps David should be forgiven because the iconic Seinfeld episode “The Hamptons” (more popularly known as the “shrinkage episode”) did not air until a month after His ‘N’ Hers hit the shelves.
Fortunately, for me, I bought the album in the Ew-natted Stayts of ‘Merka, so my album closes with the previously-released single “Razzmatazz.” Having been dumped by a girl who wanted to live a more glamorous and showy life, Cocker revels in the schadenfreude occasioned by the girl’s rapid post-relationship decline (Translation: Milk Tray = Box of Cadbury chocolates):
You started getting fatter three weeks after I left you
Now you’re going with some kid who looks like some bad comedian
Are you gonna go out, are you sitting at home eating boxes of Milk Tray?
Watch TV on your own, aren’t you the one with your razzmatazz and your nights on the town?
What makes this terribly bitter song work is Cocker’s full embrace of his bitterness, capturing a moment of sweet revenge that nearly everyone on the planet has experienced at one time or another. Though we may regret those feelings later and hope that we can forget about the experience and move on, we can’t deny that those feelings were real at the time. Cocker was right when he commented on the lyrics (“I don’t think they’re seedy. They’re just true to life”); one of his most endearing qualities is his willingness to talk about the human failings that no one wants to admit.
The music makes for a much stronger closer than “David’s Last Summer,” with its strong forward movement, upbeat tempo and a power-packed rhythm section. Needless to say, Jarvis throws caution to the wind and gives us a bravura performance combing snark and justifiable exasperation.
Though far from perfect, His ‘N” Hers contains more than enough strong material to justify its nomination for the Mercury Prize, though both His ‘N’ Hers and Parklife lost out to the popular dance album Elegant Slumming by the M People. There’s certainly no shame attached to losing to an album featuring Heather Small’s vocals, and Pulp would crush the competition a couple of years later when Different Class took home the gold. I’ve always considered His ‘N’ Hers the album that made Different Class possible, the moment when Pulp worked out most of the kinks and Jarvis Cocker began to receive well-deserved validation for his uniquely honest approach on the subjects of sex, status and adolescence. Validation builds confidence, and on Different Class, Pulp would use that confidence to take their music to another level entirely.
One of the most unpleasant aspects of entering the management ranks is that your bosses will always recommend their favorite business books. Luckily, I learned pretty quickly that you actually don’t have to read the damned things. All you have to do is skim a couple of chapters or glance at the liner notes to get the essence of any business book and dazzle your superiors with the meager nuggets of wisdom dispensed by self-styled management gurus:
Now Discover Your Strengths: Do what you’re good at (assuming you can find a job that pays for whatever it is you’re good at).
Situational Leadership: People are different and need to be managed differently. Duh.
The Leadership Challenge: Stuff your ego up your ass and listen to your employees. Double duh.
The Five Dysfunctions of Team: People can’t work together unless they trust each other and stop being assholes. Triple duh.
The tome I found most offensive was Who Moved My Cheese? An Amazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life. It is neither amazing nor revelatory that human beings resist change. “The quicker you let go of the old cheese, the sooner you can enjoy the new cheese,” advises Dr. Spencer Johnson, ridiculous advice for people who happen to like cheddar and gag at the smell of gorgonzola. He assumes that all change is good, which is so far from the truth that I wonder if he received his doctorate from Trump University.
Yes, some people resist any change with every fiber of their being because they’re either too lazy or stupid to learn new things or see things in different ways. But what Dr. Johnson (who has a vested interest in kissing management ass) fails to acknowledge is that people who actually work in organizations resist change because most of the changes initiated by management are dumb fucking ideas.
Speaking of dumb fucking management, the suits at EMI didn’t like the idea that Blur wanted to move their cheese away from Britpop towards a post-grunge, lo-fi American indie sound. They were terrified that Blur’s stylistic metamorphosis would alienate their loyal fan base. Some argued that Blur were about to commit commercial suicide [gasp!].
Huh. A couple of years ago I would have said “Blur was” rather than “Blur were.” I’m sounding more and more like a Brit every day. I’m gobsmacked.
And that’s a good word to describe the reaction of EMI management to the news that the lead single, “Beetlebum,” went straight to #1 and Blur followed suit on the album charts. Blur also did reasonably well in the United States (#61), where “Song 2” made it to #6 on the alternative rock chart.
Though producer Stephen Street claimed that “Blur had decided that commercial pressures and writing hit singles wasn’t going to be the main consideration anymore,” a glance at the timeline suggests otherwise. Oasis had moved the needle on Britpop to a harder rock sound with Definitely Maybe and What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, becoming the darlings of the British music press in the process. Damon Albarn had already dismissed The Great Escape as a “messy release” and was looking for a way forward. Graham Coxon had gone into full rejection mode as far as Britpop was concerned, filling his ears with fourth-generation Pixies-influenced American bands and urging his mates to let loose.
The most noticeable difference is in the band’s attitude towards the music. Graham Coxon noted, “It was the first time we sort of jammed. We’ve never really jammed before. We’ve been quite white-coaty, overall about recording, like in a laboratory. Yeah, we did actually feel our way through just playing whatever came to our minds and editing, which was really exciting.” Modern Life Is Rubbish had already indicated the band could rock pretty hard when they felt like it; on Blur, they would devote a whole lot of recording space to letting it fucking rip. Sometimes the looseness goes too far, resulting in energy-sapping, self-indulgent crapola, and in the end, Blur is something of a mixed bag, more an escape from Britpop than a coherent artistic statement.
Speaking of Modern Life Is Rubbish, I have the same quibble with Blur that I did with that album: the selection of the opening track. In this case, my quibble may be more controversial because it involves the vastly popular “Beetlebum.” To put it as gently and respectfully as possible, I hate this fucking song. Perhaps it’s the dumb words (even Albarn couldn’t tell you what a beetlebum is); perhaps it’s the faux-sexy, heroin chic a la the Velvet Underground (Damon and Justine were in their “white period” at the time); or maybe it’s the obvious late-period Beatles influence—Stephen Erlewine of AllMusic claimed the song covers “The White Album in the space of five minutes.” I like The White Album about as much as I like “Beetlebum,” and though I don’t often agree with Erlewine, I think he was onto something here. “Beetlebum” is also something of an outlier, as it bears little sonic connection to the other songs on the album, and generally you want the first track to set the tone. I would have gone with “M. O. R.” or maybe “Movin’ On” to get things going . . . but I also could see “Song 2” if Blur had wanted something with greater shock value in the pole position.
Opening with “Song 2” certainly would have qualified as a statement, though not the statement Blur intended to make. Alex James told Q Magazine that the band was just fucking around, essentially satirizing heavy grunge: “It was kind of a throwback. We’d always done brainless rocking out, though maybe it’s not what we’re known for.” In this case, the satiric nature of the song completely escaped the listening audience, particularly in the U. S. where millions were still in mourning for Kurt Cobain. “Song 2” became an international hit, the song that finally broke the wall of ice between Blur and the U. S. audience. To this day, the “Woo-Hoo Song” is the first song that comes to mind when you play word association using the word “blur” with a Millenial yank. As one who loves gritty, dirty power, I have to say they pulled off the con with the necessary aplomb, especially Alex James with his madly distorted bass. With typical hyperbole, NME referred to the nifty opening as Graham Coxon’s “finest moment,” and while the strummed chords are certainly ear-catching, if a shitty guitar player like me can reasonably duplicate it, no way in hell is it Graham Coxon’s finest moment. Satiric or not, the song is an absolute gas, a Pixies-perfect duplication of soft-LOUD dynamics and grunge/post-punk form.
“Country Sad Ballad Man” is one of those songs that sounds charmingly quirky on first listen, but turns into something as welcome as a root canal the more you listen to it. As in “Beetlebum,” Albarn’s lyrics emerge from a heroin haze as he slips in and out of consciousness (“VIP 223/I had my chances/Or did they have me”). Coxon did notice the less-than-stellar lyrics Albarn contributed to the album, concluding that “he’d obviously gone off his head a bit more”. That’s a very polite interpretation—one could say that John Lennon was completely off his rocker when he wrote “I Am the Walrus,” but the delightful wordplay reminiscent of his two poetical works hardly indicates a songsmith completely disconnected from his language center. Albarn’s effort here is more like post-India Lennon, so let’s call “Country Sad Ballad Man” Albarn’s version of “Yer Blues” and move on.
The most energetic rocker on the album originated in the musical laboratory of David Bowie and Brian Eno while they were experimenting with the concept of writing several songs with the same chord progression while recording Lodger. If that sounds like a stupid idea likely to result in one helluva boring album, well . . . it’s theoretically possible to vary instrumentation, tempo, vocal style, and even genre to a point where the results might prove slightly interesting. I guess we’ll never know for sure, as only two survived to make it to Lodger: “Fantastic Voyage” and “Boys Keep Swinging.” Blur borrowed—no, flat-out stole—the chords and call-and-response pattern from “Boys Keep Swinging” to create their very own contribution to the repetitive progression movement, a song called “M. O. R.” (duly crediting Bowie and Eno after the long arm of the law stepped in). As to which is the more successful effort, Bowie wins by a landslide in the lyrics category but Blur takes home the gold in the rock-the-fuck-out race.
Graham Coxon’s intro to “M.O.R” is far more impressive to my ears than the intro to “Song 2,” flipping from strong clear picking to muted-string shuffle in a heartbeat. The build itself is pretty fabulous, with each instrument adding a little more tension in turn, the piano serving as a nudge to Albarn to step up to the mike. Damon breaks out of the fog to deliver a clear, clean vocal that rises in excitement as the band explodes in rock ‘n’ roll ecstasy. The lyrics aren’t half bad, reflecting Blur’s experience in the pop-star grind, likening the experience to the ups-and-downs of a relationship in the chorus:
Here comes tomorrow (Here comes tomorrow)
One, two, three episodes (Three episodes)
We stick together (We stick together)
Go middle of the road (Middle of the road)
‘Cause that’s entertainment (That’s entertainment)
It’s the sound of the wheel (Sound of the wheel)
It rolls on forever (Roll, roll forever)
Yeah, you know how it feels (Know how it feels)
Here comes a low (I’m a boy and you’re a girl)
Here comes a high (The only ones in the world)
Here comes everything (Like monkeys out in space)
Here it comes (We are members of the human race)
I don’t know what the monkeys have to do with it, but I love that line.
Albarn follows his solid effort on “M. O. R.” with an even more enthusiastically felt performance in “On Your Own,” a piece he would later refer to as the first Gorillaz song. Though still clearly imbued with rock sensibilities in the form of Coxon’s superb work throughout the piece, the drum machine (honorably handled by drummer Rowntree) hints of the repetitive beats of hip-hop, while the loosely-delivered, heavy-on-emphatic-rhyme lyrics are only loosely connected to the melody. The message in the lyrics seems to be “follow your instincts, for whether you wind up as prime minister or sucking your toes in the shade of a redwood forest, who gives a fuck because WE’LL ALL BE THE SAME IN THE END.” I rather like that message, because I’ve always suspected that our definition of success in life is as arbitrary as fuck. And I more-than-rather like the song—the laid-back feel is balanced by strong forward movement, with just the right amounts of this instrument or that vocal and not a peep more.
“Theme from Retro” has been described as “obligatory space-rock trip-hop,” something that presents Blur in dub,” and “an unyielding, lovely row. Like, say, a Blur B-side.” Those are phrases concocted by critics who couldn’t get their heads around it, had to call it something and decided that it was time for clever phrases. The title is actually quite informative: the words “theme from” imply a cinematic experience; in this case, a theoretical film entitled “Retro.” I can see this piece working in soundtracks supporting darker productions (what comes to mind immediately are the dystopian, alternative realities of Mr. Robot). The organ-synthesizer mix is brilliantly constructed to create a sense of “something wicked this way comes”, and Damon Albarn’s wordless vocalizations cause me to visualize being locked in a room with no lights and hearing voices on the other side of the door that I can’t quite make out, amplifying the frustration of feeling trapped. I’ve read that many people find “Theme from Retro” a bore; I think it’s one of the more successful experiments on the album.
The first solo Coxon composition and performance appears next in the form of “You’re So Great,” a lo-fi love song of sorts framed in stereo acoustic guitar with two disparate electric solos. The first solo is loaded with dissonance, as it sounds like Coxon is either using the ultimate in slinky strings or that he’s deliberately de-tuned the guitar and using his nimble fingers to approach but not quite reach the proper notes. The scene involves Coxon waking up, and that warped guitar sound mirrors exactly how I feel when I wake up—sort of like I’m walking on thick foam rubber while navigating this irritating thing called reality. “Tea, tea and coffee,” sings Coxon; “Coffee, coffee and a cigarette,” sing I, but either way, we’re on the same page. I have come to fucking loathe mornings, especially workday mornings.
What kind of species would create a world where we are forced to spend most of our time doing stuff we don’t want to do in order to earn the privilege of survival?
Mini-rant out of the way, we move on to “Death of a Party,” an effort that is simultaneously mesmerizing and off-putting. The music—a mix of lo-fi guitar, booming reverb-coated beats, hard-picked bass and Hammond organ on the horror film setting—establishes the perfect setting for a gothic funeral, underscoring the “death” in the song title. In keeping with the theme, Albarn sounds positively bored to be at this or any other party on the planet, but his I-can-hardly-find-a-pulse vocal, combined with dull lyrics short on sardonic wit, results in a tremendous chasm between band and vocalist. The frustrating thing is I don’t think he’s that far off—clip this phrase here, shift to a loud whisper there and he might have nailed it. As such, I’ll yearn for an instrumental version and hope to hear it in a soundtrack someday.
But definitely not as part of a soundtrack to a Bruce Lee movie. As a practitioner of the martial arts (recommended for all women who want to survive in toxic masculine cultures), I love the integration of physical and mental discipline I experience when I’m training, but have no idea why anyone would want to watch a martial artist for purposes of entertainment. Or a boxer. Or those idiots in whatever that fight club thing is. And I’m certainly not entertained by Blur’s tongue-in-cheek homage to the late Mr. Lee, my nomination for the longest minute and twenty-five seconds in music history—a stunningly undisciplined performance, rather like vomiting.
I have no idea what Blur were trying to achieve in “I’m Just a Killer for Your Love” except to fill the album with the requisite fourteen. The tagline bears no relationship whatsoever to the lyrics, something we’ve learned is not an uncommon experience on Blur. This time the lo-fi and prominent guitar string noise become quite irritating, and the song plods along like a heroin addict coming down from a high.
Huh. I wonder why.
“Look Inside America” is notable for combining bits of two of their more famous Britpop songs: “End of a Century” in the intro and “Country House” in the build. Once I get over the obvious similarities and get ready to enjoy the song . . . what the fuck is that? Orchestral support? Are you guys out of your fucking minds? And shit, there’s even a fucking harp waiting for us around the next bend! Gee, I hope Damon Albarn has something meaningful and important to say about his problematic relationship with the United States . . . uh, no. And he’s lying like a Trumpian bastard when he tries to tell us, “I don’t know if it means that much to me.” Bullshit! Graham Coxon, on the other hand, is ab-fab on this piece.
“Strange News from Another Star” feels more Bowie than Blur, a tale of psychic collapse in the context of dystopia a la Diamond Dogs. The source for the title (and mood) is a story by Herman Hesse, an author who also had little truck with reality. The music combines sweetly-played acoustic guitar, wild dissonance and sharp guitar echoes in one of the more ambitious arrangements on the album. Unlike the disconnection experienced on “Death of the Party,” Albarn’s lethargic vocal feels more in sync with the bleak landscape (and equally bleak lyrics). This one foreshadows Blur’s later explorations with electronica . . . one of their many shifts in style that more than a few listeners find frustrating.
The band gets back to down-and-dirty in “Movin’ On,” a pretty straightforward rocker featuring full power and Albarn’s voice channeled through a lo-fi filter. Coxon ramps up the effects pedals on his solo, which is one of his wildest efforts. It’s kind of like an updated version of The Byrds’ “So You Wanna Be a Rock ‘n Roll Star,” adjusted for changes in fashion:
We’re sticky eyes and sticky bones
You get no time on your own
You get a dose and get a ghost
You get it coast-to-coast
Dye your hair black
Get Satan tattooed on your back
Pierce yourself with a coke can
Put yourself in fake tan now you’re in a band
Ah, the glorious nineties and all that we pissed away in an orgy of nihilism.
The final curtain takes a long time to unfold as Damon Albarn relives his youth in Aldham, Essex in “Essex Dogs.” If you can make it through the factory-like soundscape (not the most pleasant listening experience), you’ll be treated to a Damon Albarn narrative poem that forms the best set of lyrics on the album. In an interview, Albarn described his hometown as “One of those burgeoning Thatcher experiments where they were building loads of small estates,” communities without souls, and with little for teens to do but fuck up the dreary sameness of it all:
I remember thinking murder in the car
Watching dogs somersault through sprinklers on tiny lawns
I remember the graffiti
We are your children coming near you with spray cans of paint
I remember the sunset and the plains of cement
And the way the night just seemed
To turn the colour of Orangeade
In this town, cellular phones are hot with thieves
In this town, we all go to terminal pubs
It helps us sweat out those angry bits of life
Those angry bits of life drove Essex (historically a Tory stronghold) to vote overwhelmingly for Leave (remind me not to schedule next year’s holiday there). Given his comparative lack of lyrical effort on the album, “Essex Dogs” reassured me that Albarn hadn’t gone completely to the dogs (pun intended) and still had a gift for writing vivid poetry with Keatsian negative capability (see a dozen other posts for an explanation of “Keatsian negative capability”).
Blur’s final fuck off to Britpop appears after several seconds of silence following “Essex Dogs.” On Parklife, Blur introduced an intermission midway through the album in the form of “The Debt Collector,” a village green gazebo piece with a real brass band . . . so very, very stereotypically British. On Blur, they place the intermission at the end, a pattern-breaking message all by itself. The faux string section struggles against bursts of dissonant guitar chords and a weirdly-fitting guitar counterpoint, described by Q’s Andrew Collins as “a distressed instrumental sign-oft that goes nowhere.”
A worthy competitor to Pulp’s This Is Hardcore as the album that killed Britpop, Blur is clearly a transitional album without a conclusion. Their next album (13) would still find them in transition, a production featuring a couple of echoes from Blur but much more introspective. None of the seemingly endless changes in style have in any way damaged relations with their fan base; 13 went immediately to #1 . . . as did Think Tank, as did The Magic Whip. While debate concerning the quality of their work from an artistic perspective is certainly valid, Blur certainly mastered the art of connecting with listeners to ensure commercial success.
All of which adds credence to my theory that line staff are just as likely (if not more likely) to make sensible decisions than management. I can now picture my father reading this and ringing me up to suggest that I end the essay with one of his favorite quotes: “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” As he has consistently rejected all things Britpop over the years, I refuse to give him such satisfaction.
Shit. I just did.