I came across this album while thumbing through my dad’s massive LP collection, looking for his copy of Bare Trees. His albums are carefully arranged in alphabetical order, but I overshot the mark a bit and found this one Free record stuck between Fleetwood Mac and Bill Frisell. I might have been unconsciously attracted to the spot because of the shine from the original plastic wrapping.
“What’s this dad? The plastic’s still on it.”
“Oh yeah, that one. My m.o. when I bought an album was to slice it open with a guitar pick so it remained in pristine condition if I wanted to take it back and trade it in. I meant to do that but never got around to it and forgot all about it until we were packing for the big move. I figured it didn’t have much value so I stuck in the crate along with everything else.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Classic bait-and-switch. ‘All Right Now’ came out and blew me away, so I picked up the album as soon as it was available. There’s nothing on it that comes close to ‘All Right Now,’ and the single is better than the long version. Big letdown.”
I took all that in but had a hard time believing that any album featuring Paul Rodgers’ voice could be a “big letdown,” so when I left that day, my shopping bag contained Bare Trees, Close to the Edge and Fire and Water. Though I was planning reviews on the first two, my insatiable curiosity led me to listen to the Free album first. Like everyone else in the civilized world, I’d heard “All Right Now” a billion times, but because the song hit the airwaves eleven years before I popped out of the box, I missed out on the initial excitement generated by the single and didn’t have the expectations my dad carried into his initial listening experience.
The two features of the human personality that get in the way of the quest to achieve the objective evaluation of anything you care to mention are mood and expectations, two filters that are often interrelated. Let’s say you successfully get the broad with a nice rack to come up to your place only to find out that the nice rack was an optical illusion created by a push-up bra “guaranteed to add two sizes to your bustline.” Your dashed expectations take you out of the mood, and the best you can do at that point is honor the implied commitment to B-cup Betty by tossing her a pity fuck. Your disappointment is on you, for if you hadn’t been hungering for Dolly Parton, you might have found out that B-cup Betty gives great head, can take anything you can dish out and can squeeze every last drop out of your tube steak.
The mess created by mood and expectations manifests itself frequently in music criticism, even on altrockchick.com. When I was preparing my ain’t-gonna-happen book of reviews for publication, I came across at least a dozen reviews where I could see either mood or expectations had gotten in the way of a fair evaluation. I edited them accordingly, but like a recovering addict, I know that it’s always possible that I’ll slip again someday.
In this case, as much as I’d love to embarrass my father in a public forum by telling him he’s full of crap, I fully understand his reaction. “All Right Now” is clearly the outlier on Fire and Water, a sexy hard rocker attached to the end of an album dominated by slow to mid-tempo songs in the realm of blues-R&B-soul delivered through rock instruments. Andy Fraser and Paul Rodgers came up with the song because the band lacked a concert closing number that would excite the crowd and make them beg for an encore. If I’m my father in his early twenties with his testosterone set to ignite at the sound of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll, I might have been seriously pissed off by the extended foreplay represented by the six songs that precede “All Right Now.”
But while the album has other weaknesses (the volume sliders were often set too low on Paul Rodgers’ vocals, sometimes the bass tones are off), the album does have its strengths. Free began life as a precocious group of teenagers riding the wave of the British Blues Boom, and their early education in the blues gave them a solid foundation on which to build their sound. Andy Fraser spent some time playing with John Mayall (at the age of fifteen!), and despite the occasionally odd EQ level from the engineer, he was a nimble bassist good enough to earn a couple of bass solos on the album. Paul Kossoff was a young man who would die way too young, but in that short time established himself as a versatile, soulful and innovative guitarist. Even at this early stage in his career, Simon Kirke had mastered the essentials of beat, and his steadiness on the kit definitely contributed to the band’s tightness. As for Paul Rodgers, well . . . though I occasionally have to crank up the volume to hear him, his performances on Fire and Water demonstrate that he was well on his way to becoming a top tier lead vocalist.
On the title track, though, Rodgers takes a back seat to the magnificent guitar work of Paul Kossoff, who filled both the lead and rhythm guitar roles. If you want to explain to someone what texture means to music, and how well-executed contrasting textures give the music dimensional depth, have them listen to the instrumental break in “Fire and Water.” The rhythm guitar slams out the base chords with rough, pre-metal tonality, bolstering the rhythmic intensity. The two lead guitar parts are split between long sustained notes in a comparatively mellow tone and a series of blues-influenced riffs that kiss the tonal border of the rhythm guitar before pulling back. To my ears, the rhythm guitar is the hot fire, the lead guitar the cool water, and the tonal proximity of the blues riffs mirrors the bipolar but unified personality of the ball-breaking mistress at the heart of the song:
Baby you turn me on
But as quick as a flash your love is gone
Baby I’m gonna leave you now
But I’m gonna try to make you grieve somehow
Fire and water must have made you their daughter
Kossoff receives superb support from Andy Fraser on bass and piano, a relatively restrained but beautifully delivered lead vocal from Rodgers and marvelous cueing from Simon Kirke (who earns himself a multi-tonal drum solo on the fade). “Fire and Water” may not be a burst-out-of-the-gate album opener, but it’s one damned fine piece of work with a tantalizing grind that immediately earned it a spot on my notorious fuck playlists.
Free dials it down even further in the notably introverted piece, “Oh, I Wept.” While the biblically melodramatic title is a bit of a turn-off, the low-key arrangement is disciplined and surprisingly engaging. The dynamic peak occurs in the instrumental break, where Kossoff leads with a solo of sweet bends that highlight his precise but sensitive picking while the rhythm section of Fraser and Kirke add a touch of muscle to the mix. Rodgers’ vocal is the polar opposite of his high-heat vocal on “All Right Now,” his tone of emotional exhaustion rarely rising above the level of private conversation.
“Remember” lifts the energy level a bit, a mid-tempo rocker with classic backbeat emphasis. The song opens with a nice bit of foreshadowing, again with Kossoff on lead and rhythm, the rough chords offset with a slightly dampened, reverb-kissed melodic riff. Rodgers vocal is nice and loose, marked by his stylistic lean to fill in the gaps between the lines with additional vocalizations (grunts, oh yeahs and his fallback word, “baby”). The centerpiece once again is the Kossoff solo, with the guitar separated from the rest of the sound field through the magic of reverb, his melodic echoes spot on, his clean tones ringing out with gorgeous clarity. I’m guessing that the lyrics to this Fraser-Rodgers piece came from Rodgers, as the line “We would wander around in the northern heat” points us in the direction of Rodgers’ hometown of Middlesbrough and not to the kid from London.
Andy Fraser opens “Heavy Load” with some rather stiff piano playing, probably echoes of his classical training. He loosens up a bit in the instrumental passage, but he still sounds like I did before I discovered Thelonious Monk. The best parts of the song still belong to Kossoff, who plays two lead patterns in opposite channels during his too-brief solo. Kossoff was a master of the short and sweet melodic riff, and these tiny snippets are little bursts of beauty that lift the song to a higher dimension. As is true of most of the songs on Fire and Water, the lyrics don’t present much of an intellectual challenge, but Paul Rodgers has the ability to lend credibility to even the tritest lyrics.
We continue in downtempo mode for “Mr. Big,” where the lyrics cross the line into horrible and don’t give Rodgers much to work with. Mr. Big seems to be someone who has dissed Rodgers’ squeeze; the line “and she saves it all for me” probably indicates that Mr. Big may have implied that said squeeze had been squeezing Mr. Big’s member. I can understand how that might get a guy’s dander up, but threatening to place the alleged perpetrator in “a great big hole in the ground” is clearly over the top. Free decides to move on from this lame tale in relatively short order, ramping up the tempo for an extended instrumental break. Andy Fraser gets the solo this time, but unfortunately for Andy (who played his part well), his bass sounds more like a rubber tuba than a bass guitar, thanks to poor engineering.
Free attempts to get up from the canvas with the slowest song on the album, “Don’t Say You Love Me,” a song that Al Green might have done justice to had he not been fully capable of writing his own stuff. This song represents my dad’s strongest argument against the album, for at this point, I’m ready to scream, “Get the fuck on with it and kick some everloving ass!”
Ah! There it is! At last! The famous two-power-chord riff with a Dsus2 on second go-round! As simple and straightforward as a deep thrust and just as effective! Rip that Les Paul to fucking shreds, Paulie baby! Oh my—is Paul Rodgers feeling it or what? That little scream sounds like a man who came home, opened the door, turned on the lights and found three stacked and naked broads waiting to tend to his every need. Ah, but Paul is a professional, a disciplined and intentional vocalist, so he closes his eyes, puts all those delectable racks out of his mind and tells us what happened to him just the other day:
There she stood in the street
Smiling from her head to her feet
I said hey, what is this
Now baby, maybe she’s in need of a kiss
I said hey, what’s your name baby?
Maybe we can see things the same
Now don’t you wait or hesitate
Let’s move before they raise the parking rate
Clever line, that last one, but 99% percent of the people I know sing “Let’s move before they raise the fucking rate!” In addition to being damned satisfying, the word substitution is helpful for people who can’t sing a note but desperately want to match the intensity in Paul Rodgers’ burst of exuberance. Most of those Rodgers wannabes are unaware how skillfully Paul Rodgers has set them up for the great explosion through the masterful self-imposed restraint he exercises in the first six lines. The restraint starts to unravel with his deliberate flutter of the vowels on “wait” and “hesitate,” creating an overwhelming tension that demands not just resolution but near-orgasmic fucking resolution. The chorus in this context is incredibly grounding, giving the girls in the audience a chance to freshen up and sop up any wet spots.
I’ll cover the second verse on its second go-round, but I want to get to the instrumental passage so I can ask my dad a question. “Hey, dad! Are you out of your fucking mind? The single version is better than the long version? What? Let me quote Joe Strummer here. ‘ARRRGHHHGORRA BUH BHUH DO ARRRRGGGGHHHHNNNN!!!!’ Sorry, but I simply could not find the words to communicate how violently I disagree with your opinion. Love you too. Ciao.”
The instrumental passage in the long version of “All Right Now” demonstrates just how well the guys in Free clicked when they were on. Simon Kirke’s drumming is more like the guidance of a conductor, holding back to allow the instrumentalists to establish space, prodding them to rise to the occasion by adding a varied cymbal attack and cueing the end of the sequence with an assertive but not overbearing drum roll a few measures before the conclusion. After a brief duet featuring Kirke and Kossoff, Andy Fraser takes over with a commanding bass line that drives the chordal and tempo shift that opens to an extended Kossoff solo over Andy’s steadying piano chords. Beginning with his trademark short phrase/rest pattern, the feeling of exuberance finally catches up with Kossoff and he extends his lines while increasing the speed and intensity of his picking. His dying note is like the vocalization of satisfaction following an orgasm, but he rights himself in a hurry to deliver the main chord riff with all-out power while Paul Rodgers shouts from the wings.
The Paul Rodgers who appears in the second rendition of the second verse has GOT THE FEELING, PEOPLE! If there’s one moment when Paul Rodgers crossed the barrier between a damned good lead singer to a great one, it’s right here. Imbuing the blue line “watching every move on her face” with trembling tension, he relaxes his phrasing to conversational level, allowing him to not just sing the words but actually play both the male and female roles in the dialogue. You hear the female skepticism in the rendering of the line, “She said look—uh—what’s your gammmmmmmme.” Feeling those questioning eyes bearing into his horny soul, Rodgers attempts to defend himself, deliberately and lamely: “Baby I said slow—SLOW!—don’t go so fast!” then pleadingly, “Don’t you think that love can last?” The response is the beautifully bemused, dick-shrinking outrage of a woman with no tolerance for bullshit—there’s a definite laugh and a hidden question behind the outrage when Rodgers (playing the broad) spits out the word “LOVE,” as in “That is the lamest fucking pick-up line I’ve ever heard.” You can see her lift her eyes to the heavens now as she shouts “LORD ABOVE,” almost giggling as she sings the goodbye line, “Now you’re trying to trick me in love!” The fade can go on forever as far as I’m concerned . . . like I said, I’ve heard it a billion times, but “All Right Now” is one great piece of rock ‘n’ roll.
Alas and alack, “All Right Now” was also the death knell for Free. Simon Kirke explained how that happened on Songfacts:
It became a bit of an albatross around our necks, I have to say. Even though it elevated Free into the big leagues, it became a bit of an albatross because we couldn’t follow it. It became a huge hit all around the world, only because we wanted to have something that people could dance to, but then, of course, we had to follow it up, and Island Records were desperate for us to follow it up. Really it was just a one-off for us, and when the follow-up to ‘All Right Now’ died a death – it was called “The Stealer” – and the album that followed, Fire and Water, from which ‘All Right Now’ was taken, when that didn’t do very well, we took it to heart and the band broke up. So, in an indirect way, ‘All Right Now’ was not very good for the band, I have to say.
There’s a bit more to the story, of course. Free disbanded for a while due to a conflict between Fraser and Rodgers, reunited, then Fraser left when Paul Kossoff’s addiction rendered him unreliable. After one last album (Heartbreaker), Free split up for good, with Rodgers and Kirke moving on to Bad Company, Fraser to Sharks and Paul Kossoff in limbo until his death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of twenty-five.
So I can understand why my dad felt that “All Right Now” was kind of a tease, as that kind of kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll really wasn’t what Free wanted to do. That follow-up single, “The Stealer” is pretty dull in comparison, completely lacking the bite and excitement of their greatest hit. With their grounding in the blues and their impressive collection of talent, they certainly could have changed direction and fully committed to that kind of rock, but it just wasn’t their bag. The bulk of Fire and Water is the real Free, comfortable with slow to mid-tempo blues-tinged music that they felt suited their talents. They played well, but the kind of music they chose to produce was never going to set the world on fire . . . and except for that one great single, they didn’t.
Still, Fire and Water is a pretty good record with some fabulous performances that didn’t deserve to spend the rest of its temporal existence wasting away in plastic wrap on my father’s immaculately organized shelves.
Nuts to you, dad!
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.