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.
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.