Tag Archives: Britpop

Pulp – Different Class – Classic Music Review (Britpop Series)

 

“There must be classes—there must be rich and poor,” Dives says, smacking his claret (it is well if he even sends the broken meat out to Lazarus sitting under the window). Very true; but think how mysterious and often unaccountable it is—that lottery of life which gives to this man the purple and fine linen and sends to the other rags for garments and dogs for comforters.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair

I’m convinced we all are voyeurs. It’s part of the detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes on behind those windows . . . There’s an entertainment value to it, but at the same time we want to know: What do humans do? Do they do the same things as I do? It’s a gaining of some sort of knowledge, I think.

David Lynch

*****

If you would have set odds at the beginning of the Britpop phenomenon as to which band would be most likely to produce the crown jewel of the era, the odds on Pulp would have been 1000-1 or worse. Pulp had existed on the fringes of listener consciousness for over a decade as an indie group, struggling though all the associated challenges of independence that have buried many a promising new band. The most accurate adjective you can apply to their pre-fame style is “eclectic,” a curious mix of electronic new wave, experimental, post-disco, post-punk, folk, romance, house, acid, glam and a touch of Serge Gainsbourg. While they did get some buzz in the music mags for a couple of early singles, it would have been a huge leap of faith to predict anything close to stardom in 1993.

Their fortunes changed when Island rescued them from indie oblivion and gave them big label support. The result was the album His ‘n’ Hers, which blasted into the Top 10 the following year and earned a Mercury Prize nomination. What I find most interesting about this transition is that after castrating Robert Palmer and turning him into a cheesy lounge singer, Island pretty much let Pulp be Pulp. By this time, all those diverse influences had converged to create a unique sound and presentation that managed to catch the public fancy.

His ‘n’ Hers certainly contained more pop-friendly tunes than their earlier efforts, and is a pretty solid album overall. It does suffer from inconsistent production; on some songs the space allotted to the band squeezes Jarvis Cocker’s vocals into a very narrow range in the sound field, making it difficult to hear the lyrics clearly. It is impossible to appreciate Pulp without paying close attention to Jarvis Cocker’s every word and vocalization, so this flaw served to dampen the listening experience. Then again, it’s equally apparent that at this stage, Jarvis was still sharpening his acting skills and phrasing, leading to a few moments of scenery-chewing and vocal inflections that didn’t quite work in the context of song and lyrics. Live versions of the hits from His ‘n’ Hers performed after the release of Different Class resolved both problems, providing supporting evidence that during the recording of Different Class, Jarvis Cocker was in complete command of his voice while displaying extraordinary sensitivity to narrative and subtext.

If Different Class had been a full-length film, Jarvis Cocker would have won Best Actor at the 68th Academy Awards and the Academy could have avoided the everlasting embarrassment of handing the statue to Nicolas Cage.

Even the best actors can’t do much with a bad script, but Cocker took care of that aspect of the work by penning some of the finest lyrics ever written for popular music. The lyrics for a Different Class are exceptionally vivid, filled with memorable, meaningful lines expressing a wide range of attitudes, emotions and psychological states. Often salted with wit, occasionally marked by justifiable outrage and sometimes outrageous in and of themselves, the imagery often gives the listener a you-are-there feeling that is intensely captivating. I would love to be able to tell my readers how Jarvis Cocker spent years agonizing over the lyrics, risking his eyesight as he scribbled away in a garret to the dying light of a candle stub, spending many a sleepless night searching assiduously for le mot juste in every turn of a phrase. Sadly for the romantics and English majors in the audience, Mr. Cocker opted for a different approach:

We went into Axis recording studios and recorded 12 songs. Next problem—I hadn’t written any words for them. The only solution was to sit in my sister’s kitchen with a bottle of cheap Spanish brandy and write until I lost consciousness—in the morning I had completed 10 and I finished the other 2 on the way to the studio (I have tried this method of working since with no result other than a hangover).

—Liner notes, 2006 Deluxe Edition

Well, fuck it. That works, too.

The tight timeline did come with certain advantages. It forced Jarvis Cocker to write about what he knew best—his life experience, from his youth in Sheffield to the dawn of pop stardom. The deadline also helped rein in the censor that exists in everyone’s brain, the nagging parent that warns you “don’t say this” or “don’t do this” and “don’t even think about this!” This allowed him to explore taboo topics and speak to those unspeakable urges that all of us have but share only with therapists and (maybe) life partners. Along the way, he cuts through the bullshit and says what he really means instead of giving us polite approximations, achieving that state that all poets yearn for but rarely achieve—the moment when the listener (or reader) realizes that what has been expressed is what the listener has felt all along but could never find the right words to express the thought or feeling. Some of the narratives in Different Class may seem bizarre and exotic at first listen, but that’s only because our own censors are in constant operation. Once we tell mom or dad to get the fuck out of our heads, we realize that the stories told in Different Class encompass a much broader range of the human experience than we’re accustomed to hearing in pop—and once you get used to that, the listening experience becomes exceptionally rewarding and curiously validating.

That’s because none of us are truly normal and we’re all at least a little bit “different.”

While I’ve spent a lot of space talking about Jarvis Cocker’s contributions, it would be a serious mistake to ignore the band. Pulp was one of the tightest, most disciplined bands of the era, exceptionally proficient with arrangement and equally strong in managing the varying dynamics demanded by the lyrics. Music creation was a collaborative effort, and arrangements made the most of each member’s unique skill set. Pulp music largely eschews the grand solo and the virtuoso moment, so you may not immediately notice the high level of musicianship at work. In that sense, Pulp operated on the symphonic model, focusing on the wholeness of the composition and the blend of disparate voices. That approach is perfectly suited to support a vocal soloist who varies his attack from full-throated passion to evocative whispers.

The overriding theme of Different Class is captured in the motto on the back of the album (We don’t want no trouble, we just want the right to be different. That’s all.) and in the opening number, “Mis-Shapes.” The sigh-infused half-mumbled opening line (“Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits”) gives you no hint of the anthemic explosiveness that lies ahead, but it beautifully expresses the “Why do we have to deal with this silly shit?” question that comes up every time an oppressed group has to fight once again for rights and privileges that should be a given. Cocker then gives a tongue-in-cheek apology for the existence of these unpleasant outsiders, latching on to the faddish health studies of the day that attempted to pin the problems of the lower classes on poor childhood nutrition:

Raised on a diet of broken biscuits, oh
We don’t look the same as you
And we don’t do the things you do
But we live around here too, oh really

Broken biscuits are manufacturing deformities sold in British stores in the holy name of profit margins; here Cocker adopts the image as an icon for those who look and behave in ways that the perfectly-shaped (shaped by culture, that is) normals find inexplicable and unacceptable. The dangers of being different are described in the second verse, a sad retelling of what happens to gays, blacks, bohemians, the homeless, transgenders or any “different” person who happens to wind up on the wrong side of town:

Mis-shapes, mistakes, misfits
We’d like to go to town but we can’t risk it, oh
‘Cause they just want to keep us out
You could end up with a smack in the mouth
Just for standing out, now, really

The dry-and-droll “oh really” in the first verse is a theatrical aside where Cocker slips into the role of normal resident who can’t accept that “those people” dare to exist in their exclusive environment; the “now, really” is a reinforcement of the “having to go over this again is fucking ridiculous” subtext. Up to this point, the band has been somewhat restrained, providing sharp rhythmic punctuation in the verses before returning to background. Now the band holds to that insistent punctuation as Cocker addresses the mis-shapes directly, assuring them that “the future’s owned by you and me.” Cued by an introductory drum roll, the band explodes in a shift to double-time as Cocker delivers a confident message of imminent revolution:

We’re making a move, we’re making it now
We’re coming out of the side-lines
Just put your hands up, it’s a raid yeah
We want your homes, we want your lives
We want the things you won’t allow us
We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds

I’ve thought of those lines as I try to play out how the Americans can get rid of the fascist-fundamentalist Trump criminal organization and . . . while I hope non-violence and intellectual superiority can triumph over the deplorables, those fanatics have lots of guns and believe that killing liberals is a god-sanctioned act . . . I just don’t know.

The differences in play in “Mis-Shapes” are partly generational, echoing the cries of the early British punks (“We learnt too much at school now we can’t help but see/That the future that you’ve got mapped out is nothing much to shout about”), but to interpret “Mis-Shapes” through such a narrow lens is a mistake. Human beings have an instinctual fear of anything different, and with increasing intercultural interaction, emerging sexual diversity and the burgeoning number of communities based on lifestyle choices, the message of “Mis-Shapes” is that the resolution lies in resorting to our intelligence rather than our instincts to guide us through. The dramatic impact of that message is enhanced by the use of half step rises on the fifth note of the root chord scale (three steps up in the G-major segment and two steps up in the E-minor segment), a simple technique that results in a series of terribly exciting builds.

“Pencil Skirt” seems to pick up on a monologue that’s already in progress with its clever fade-in. It seems Jarvis and his neighbor are engaged in (gasp) illicit sex!

Oh, well, I know that you’re engaged to him
Oh, but I know you want something to play with, baby
I’ll be around when he’s not in town, oh
Yeah, I’ll show you how you’re doing it wrong, oh
I really love it when you tell me to stop, oh
Oh, it’s turning me on

We can infer that she’s engaged to someone she’s “supposed to” marry, someone mum and dad think is a good match. Her body is telling her otherwise, and despite her weak protests, she engages in cuckoldry with explosive passion. As for his ambitions, we know he gets off at the naughtiness of it all, but we soon find out that he’s trying to secure the wench for himself (“But I’ve kissed your mother twice/And now I’m working on your dad”). As the story reaches the climax, his intentions become more ambiguous, leaving us wondering if the passion he feels now might disappear once the relationship is sanctioned:

I only come here cause I know it makes you sad
I only do it ‘cos I know you know it’s bad
Oh, don’t you know that it’s ugly and it shouldn’t be like that?
Oh but, oh, it’s turning me on

“Pencil Skirt” isn’t simply a story about two cheaters who delight in dirt, but a mini-story that paints a clear picture of a cultural norm of repression that forces people into sexual dark alleys instead of being open and honest about their desires and motivations. Earlier in the song, the narrator encourages the woman to “watch my conscience disappear,” and while he seems to recover that conscience in this final verse, he can’t deny that “Oh but, oh, it’s turning me on.” We leave the song quite unsure that any long-term relationship will have the same sense of thrill for either of them, which is just fucking sad. Cocker’s performance mingles sotto voce with occasional bursts of plain-speaking that perfectly fit the narrative while enriching the subtext, and as usual, the band is tight, unintrusive and there at all the right moments.

Incredible as it may seem, “Common People” almost died at birth. When Jarvis Cocker let the band hear the nifty little tune he’d come up with on his brand-new Casiotone 500, the reaction was less-than-enthusiastic  . . . with one exception. “I just thought it was great straight away. It must have been the simplicity of it, and you could just tell it was a really powerful song then,” opined Candida Doyle.

Lesson #1: Always trust the keyboard player, said the pianist.

Lesson #2: Always trust the broad, said the broad.

In researching the song, I learned that most of the journalistic and critical efforts devoted to “Common People” have nothing to do with the memorable music or the powerful, searing lyrics, but with the search for the true identity of the oblivious Greek chick who serves as the foil. Oh, for fuck’s sake, people! By the mid-90’s the rising income inequality initiated by the ReaganThatcher regimes had already resulted in a virtual population explosion of common people who were ruthlessly kicked out of the middle class and ALL YOU CARE ABOUT IS SOME EMPTY-HEADED ENTITLED BROAD?

The second-most common reference defines the subject matter of the song as “slumming.” That’s like saying that “Mis-Shapes” is about broken biscuits. I would quote from the lyrics to that song if I had the opportunity to speak to those scions of superficiality and tell them “You’re so bleeding thick!” Jarvis Cocker used slumming as a departure point, an example of behavior and mindset that indicates the existence of a far more dangerous threat to society. “Common People” is about how we have abandoned empathy for entrepreneurship and compassion for selfishness, condemning millions to lives devoid of “meaning and control.”

When he encounters the empty space of the Ivanka-like persona—a scene set to a light, cheerful music background—Jarvis responds in an offhand manner, playing along with joke:

She told me that her Dad was loaded,
I said “In that case I’ll have a rum and coca-cola.”
She said “Fine.”
And in thirty seconds time she said,
I want to live like common people,
I want to do whatever common people do,
I want to sleep with common people,
I want to sleep with common people,
Like you.
Well what else could I do?
I said “I’ll see what I can do.”

He escorts his apprentice to a supermarket, where she finds his suggestion to “pretend you’ve got no money” laughably cute. The depth of her obliviousness finally hits him, a realization dramatized in the whispered line, “Are you sure?” That brilliant piece of voice acting always gives me the chills, and after he questions her again about her commitment to trading places, you can “hear” him throw his hands in the air in frustration as he raises his voice to deliver the lines, “But she just didn’t understand/She just smiled and held my hand.”

Jarvis has now had it with this silly bitch and responds to his shock at her insensitivity with an unflinching picture of reality, delivered in a voice marked by intense astonishment and righteous anger supported by disciplined, steady band power:

Rent a flat above a shop,
Cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool,
Pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right,
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night,
Watching roaches climb the wall,
If you called your Dad he could stop it all.
You’ll never live like common people,
You’ll never do whatever common people do,
You’ll never fail like common people,
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view,
And dance and drink and screw,
Because there’s nothing else to do.

I can’t think of another passage in popular music that moves me as much as this one, and I always reach the point of tears when I hear the lines, “You’ll never fail like common people/You’ll never watch your life slide out of view.” A lower-class existence means you are forced into scripted lives with limited options, ignorant about how the game is played and lacking the financial resources to ante up, set up to fail through poor education and the absence of potentially useful connections. The lives of the lower classes represent one of the ugliest aspects of life under the kill-or-be-killed nature of untempered capitalism, but rather than face the problem, the rich and even large segments of the middle class blame the poor, because it’s their own damned fault, you know . . . those lazy bastards.

The intensely exciting instrumental passage with its breathtakingly emphatic one-chord coda (ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! ba-ba-ba! BA-BA-BA-BA/BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA-BA!) stands by itself as a great musical moment, but I’m absolutely knocked out when they repeat the pattern towards the end of the second-go-round of the “Rent a flat above the shop” passage and Jarvis inserts a brief pause between “watching” and “roaches climb the wall.” While the whisper cited above gave me the chills, that glorious bit of phrasing sends those chills up and down my spine and back again. Prior to that amazing bit of collaborative creation, Jarvis gives us his final take on the lives of the common people, moving me to frustrated tears once again:

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go.
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright,
Whilst you can only wonder why.

If “Common People” fails to move you, I suggest you may want to read up on emotional intelligence or try to figure out what happened in your life to render you so callous to the problems faced by your fellow human beings (with or without the aid of a therapist). It’s not only a great song, but a vitally important song that is as relevant today as it was almost twenty-five years ago.

The only way to follow an epic song like “Common People” is to completely shift mood and perspective, and Pulp accomplishes this with the gypsy-esque, orchestra-enhanced revenge fantasy “I Spy.” Cocker told Melody Maker that he wrote the song about his experience living on the dole in Sheffield, describing it as “one of the most savage songs that I’ve ever written . . . it’s definitely the most vindictive.” I’ll say! As he wanders the streets of his hometown, feeling that “everyone thinks you’re just this useless, jobless piece of crap,” he fantasizes about revenge on all the self-satisfied bastards around him. Those fantasies are oddly empowering, compensating for the loss of self-worth engendered by the judgments of the smug. But while he seems inert to the lazy observer, he is a man with a plan: “It may look to the untrained eye/I’m sitting on my ass all day/I’m biding time until I take you all on.” At first his imagination merges with happier moments from the past (“The crowd gasp at Cocker’s masterful control of the bicycle/Skillfully avoiding the dog turd next to the corner shop”) and the first time he grabbed a tit (for which act he believes he deserves a plaque), but soon warns the listener that “You’ve got to wait for the best.” We don’t have to wait long—the music dims and Cocker shifts to a loaded whisper, barely able to contain his vengeful delight:

You see, you should take me seriously
Very seriously indeed.
Cause I’ve been sleeping with your wife for the past sixteen weeks
Smoking your cigarettes
Drinking your brandy
Messing up the bed that you chose together
And in all that time I just wanted you to come home unexpectedly one afternoon
And catch us at it in the front room

Forgive me for indulging in Schadenfreude, but that sequence finds me bursting into hysterical laughter. Jarvis offered the opinion that “it’s important to acknowledge that you’ve got these feelings inside you,” so I’ll defend myself by insisting that my reaction is legitimately therapeutic. In any case, “I Spy” is a remarkable piece of theatre, a penetrating look at human psychology and a courageous admission of the author’s very human flaws. And though it seems a significant departure from “Common People” in terms of mood and music, “I Spy” actually enriches the class narrative by shining a light on the deep bitterness of the working classes engendered by circumstances that forever seem out of one’s control.

Now we need a pick-me-up, and we get a much-needed boost with the distorted rock guitar, pounding drums and disco-tinged synth of “Disco 2000.” Cocker’s delivery of the opening verse reinforces the notion that the man had his acting skills down pat:

Oh we were born within one hour of each other
Our mothers said we could be sister and brother
Your name is Deborah, Deborah

The second “Deborah” is half-whispered, as if he’s deifying the name of a fondly remembered squeeze of yesteryear.

Nah.

It never suited ya

The rest of the song is a delightfully uncensored recollection of memories and regrets. The mothers in question dreamt of the day when the two would “marry and never split up.” Cocker’s rejoinder is “Oh, we never did it, although I often thought of it,” and his clipping of the words “did it” indicates he wasn’t thinking about exchanging vows. Sadly, he winds up on the losing end of the competition, resigned to a youth drenched in cold showers:

You were the first girl at school to get breasts
And Martyn said that you were the best
Oh the boys all loved you, but I was a mess
I had to watch them trying to get you undressed
We were friends, that was as far as it went
I used to walk you home sometimes but it meant
Oh, it meant nothing to you
‘Cause you were so popular

Reinforcing the fascination-with-the-millenium theme of Britpop, he suggests they meet up in the year 2000 by the fountain in Sheffield, the classic hometown meeting place. The proposed meet-up serves the purpose of resolving one of the dozens of loose ends created in the confusing world of the teenager, and while it may seem as unpleasantly nostalgic as a high school reunion, in this case I think it’s a valid desire for closure and shared understanding . . . life as a teenager is full of unresolved questions with answers found only when you’re mature enough to hear them.

Human artifacts tell stories about their owners, and there is hardly a piece of furniture in anyone’s house that contains more stories than the bed. It’s my favorite place in the whole world! I like to spend at least half of every day there! And yes, I change the sheets frequently! I may be a pervert, but I’m a very clean pervert!

As far as beds go, I’m a very lucky girl, but the lady in “Live Bed Show” is not.

She doesn’t have to go to work
But she doesn’t want to stay in bed
‘Cause it’s changed from something comfortable
To something else instead

The story is built around that verse, which appears at the beginning and at the close. We learn that at one time you could hear “the headboard banging in the night,” but “something beautiful left town/and she doesn’t even know its name.” While this could be a commentary on the fading beauty of womankind, Jarvis Cocker has always shown an empathetic affinity for women (more about that later), so I think that a loveless marriage is the culprit (backed up by the fact she doesn’t have to work). The music is slightly melodramatic, rather like a slower version of Cher’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down),” but the narrative is sparse, lean and free of over-dramatization. It’s just a sad song about another sad life in Jolly Olde England.

We shift from sad to sweet with “Something Changed,” a story about how kismet or a roll of the dice plays a major role in lovers coming together. While I personally don’t believe that “there’s someone up above” with “a timetable directing acts of love,” I do believe that something must be behind the often strange set of choices each party makes that eventually lead to them coming together in a way that feels like magic. The song opens with big, crisp acoustic guitar, eventually supported by romantically-geared strings providing melodic counterpoint. This is as close that Pulp gets to sounding like a classic guitar-drums-bass band on Different Class, and they’re pretty damned good at it! Jarvis Cocker came out as a devotee of random chance, saying “Something Changed” is “not really about fate, it’s more about the randomness of things . . . The worst thing about having a schedule and a timetable is that there’s less chance for unexpected things to happen.” I agree, and I love how this lightly reflective moment adds to the thematic diversity of the album.

We head out to the Santa Pod Raceway in Podington, Bedfordshire, England to hang with twenty thousand people high on E’s (ecstasy) or Wizz (speed), all nicely sorted out into separate cliques. I never bothered with raves during my wayward youth, though I thought ravers were rather nice, harmless people somewhat intimidated by the real world surrounding them. Cocker’s reminiscences capture the Woodstock-like belief that because all of us young folks came together “this has just got to mean something-ing.” Since Cocker notes that “no-one seems to know exactly where it is,” I suppose there is something miraculous about them coming together, given how fucked-up they were. The dominant melody is light and dreamy, reflecting the spaciness of the participants, shifting to something a bit darker when reality enters the picture:

Oh, in the middle of the night
It feels alright, but then tomorrow morning
Then you come down

The initial excitement fades long before the crash, however, as all those apparently nice people prove become quite unfriendly when a chap asks them for a lift:

Everybody asks your name, they say we’re all the same and now it’s “Nice one, ” “geezer”
But that’s as far as the conversation went
I lost my friends, I dance alone
It’s six o’clock, I want to go home
But it’s “no way, ” “not today”
Makes you wonder what it meant
(shift to spoken word) And this hollow feeling grows and grows and grows and grows
And you want to call your mother
And say “Mother, I can never come home again
‘Cause I seem to have left an important part of my brain somewhere
Somewhere in a field in Hampshire.”

There was a silly controversy concerning the cover of the single version of “Sorted Out for E’s & Wizz” where the Daily Mirror “journalist” Kate Thornton accused Pulp facilitating and encouraging drug use. Harrumph! If the anti-drug fanatics would exert one-tenth of the energy they waste with their knee-jerk paranoid reactions towards addressing the problem of the existential pain of modern life (caused by meaningless jobs, limited options and the obsession with conformity)—you know, the problem that leads people to use drugs in the first place—the world would be a happier, more rational place. People use drugs to escape from reality because reality often sucks. Why not try to make it better? Jarvis Cocker’s message was much stronger and more to the point, and it’s too bad he forgot about it when he developed a passion for cocaine in the years that followed.

“F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” has earned Jarvis Cocker deserved enmity from music critics everywhere who have to break their stride to T.Y.P.E.O.U.T.T.H.E.I.N.I.T.I.A.L.S.O.F.T.H.E.F.U.C.K.I.N.G.T.I.T.L.E. Once I get the peevishness out of my system, I find myself treated to an opening passage with tremendous sex appeal, with Nick Banks offering a sweet syncopated beat enhanced with electronics, Steve Mackey providing a nice rhythmic counterpoint, Candida Doyle adorning the spaces and Russell Senior demonstrating remarkable bow command with dissonant, edgy fills. The effect is dark, eerie and dangerously erotic. Jarvis enters in spoken word mode, negating the erotic flavor through his tale of forced isolation in an icy room. The furniture is desperate need of repair, as is the room’s inhabitant:

The room is cold
And has been like this for several months
If I close my eyes, I can visualise everything in it
Right down
Right down to the broken handle
On the third drawer down of the dressing table
And the world outside this room
Has also assumed a familiar shape
The same events shuffled
In a slightly different order each day
Just like a modern shopping centre
And it’s so cold
Yeah, it’s so cold

Suddenly, in a move I’ll describe as Pixies squared, we get LOUD and the reason for the man’s paralysis. He’s in love! The fucking idiot is in love and can’t handle it!

What is this feeling called love?
Why me, why you?
Why here, why now?
It doesn’t make no sense, no
It’s not convenient, no
It doesn’t fit my plans, no
It’s something I don’t understand, oh
F-E-E-L-I-N-G-C-A-double-L-E-D
L-O-V-E, what is this thing that is happening to me?
So what do I do?

Well, sonny, you’re equipped with a protruding member that can produce serious discomfort when unused, so why the fuck don’t you use it? Ah! I see—another case of the weight of cultural expectations concerning romantic behavior crushing your libido and leaving you with erectile dysfunction! Sigh. Poor bastard.

I’ve got a slightly sick feeling in my stomach
Like I’m standing on top of a very high building, oh, yeah
All the stuff they tell you about in the movies
But this isn’t chocolate boxes and roses
It’s dirtier than that
Like some small animal that only comes out at night
And I see flashes of the shape of your breasts
And the curve of your belly
And they make me have to sit down and catch my breath
And it’s so cold
And it’s so cold

Hey! I heard that lecherous tone on “it’s dirtier than that,” sonny. Go with that! Explode!

We’re not sure if the narrator gets his rocks off, but the band certainly explodes with an extended, thumping rendition of the LOUD. Perfectly designed for live performance, “F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.” is an exciting experience in the erotic Twilight Zone where too many people remain in culturally-induced paralysis.

Sexual tension of a different sort awaits us in the marvelous dramatic monologue “Underwear.” Jarvis slips into the role of a woman with surprising ease, a feature of his personality likely developed through his largely fatherless youth. The classic and trite expectation about boys who grow up without fathers is that they become “mama’s boys,” but my experience says otherwise—my interest level in a man goes way up if I learn that he was raised primarily by his mother, because mama is likely to have taught him the missing skill he probably would never have learned from a man: emotional intelligence. It’s an extra bit of insurance that tells me I’m not going to get stuck with a macho jerk driven by he-man fantasies.

The basic problem facing the young woman is that she has set the wheels in motion to have sex with a relatively recent acquaintance:

Why don’t you shut the door
And close the curtains?
‘Cause you’re not going anywhere
He’s coming up the stairs
And in a moment he’ll want to see your underwear

Aside: Jarvis Cocker wrote some of the most brilliant opening verses in history.

She explains her dilemma in the chorus, where Jarvis delivers a beautiful, passionate and agonized vocal, mirroring the emotional stew inside:

I couldn’t stop it now
There’s no way to get out
He’s standing far too near
And how the hell did you get in here
Semi-naked in somebody else’s room?
I’d give my whole life to see it
Just you
Stood there
Only in your underwear

Many readers will listen to those words and think, “What the fuck! Why can’t she stop it? Tell the guy she changed her mind and move on!” It may be true that you have to be a woman to understand this, but sometimes we find ourselves in a pickle where we’ve essentially enticed the guy into the promise of poontang and it . . . it feels awkward and somewhat rude to back out and leave him with purple balls. Call it “misplaced empathy,” but the phenomenon is quite common . . . and I have supporting evidence to back that claim!

The last contact I had with American TV was the Stormy Daniels interview on 60 Minutes. Naturally, the only thing interviewer Anderson Cooper was interested in was why in the hell she fucked Donald Trump, and her experience was exactly the experience described in “Underwear.”

Stormy: I asked him if I could use his restroom and he said, “Yes, you know, it’s through those– through the bedroom, you’ll see it.” So I—I excused myself and I went to the—the restroom . . . You know, I was in there for a little bit and came out and he was sitting, you know, on the edge of the bed when I walked out . . . perched.

Anderson Cooper: And when you saw that, what went through your mind?

Stormy: I realized exactly what I’d gotten myself into. And I was like, “Ugh, here we go.” (laugh) And I just felt like maybe– (laugh) it was sort of– I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, “Well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.”

Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.

Stormy: Yes.

Anderson Cooper: You were 27, he was 60. Were you physically attracted to him?

Stormy: No.

Anderson Cooper: Not at all?

Stormy: No.

Anderson Cooper: Did you want to have sex with him?

Stormy: No. But I didn’t—I didn’t say no. I’m not a victim, I’m not—

Anderson Cooper: It was entirely consensual.

Stormy: Oh, yes, yes.

Early in my sexual development I found myself in this situation a few times, and reached out to my mother for advice (yes, we’re that close). After talking it through, I decided that the problem had to do with the indirect communication of traditional seduction, and that to avoid “pity fucks” I would have to learn how to clarify my feelings and express them directly and immediately to my prospective partner. “I have a sense that I might want to fuck you but I’m not sure. Let’s just hang out together and see if that feeling gets any clearer. How do you feel about it?” Usually, the answer to that question is stammering bullshit, which causes me to immediately lose interest, allowing me to say, “Thank you for helping my clarify my feelings. You’re very attractive but this isn’t going to work for me. Friends?”

I’m definitely an exception, and my heart reaches out to the woman in “Underwear” because I’ve been there. Our heroine tries to laugh at herself and her situation (“If fashion is your trade/Then when you’re naked/I guess you must be unemployed”), then attempts to make the best out of an awkward situation. After all, beneath the doubt, hints of the initial urge still exist, so she could at least get a little physiological release in a kinda sorta win-win situation:

If you close your eyes and just remember
That this is what you wanted last night
So why is it so hard for you to touch him
For you to go and give yourself to him, oh, Jesus!

Cocker’s delivery of “oh, Jesus” is a lusciously ambiguous moment—we don’t know if it means, “Oh, Jesus, I can’t do this” or “Oh, Jesus” then jumped into his waiting arms, overcome with lust. “Underwear” is a poetic gem, supported by exceptionally strong performances from Nick Banks and Russell Senior, whose violin fills mirror the woman’s inner tensions.

“Monday Morning,” a song about growing up and trying to get your shit together by trading one weekly routine (partying) for another (the weekly grind), isn’t as lyrically interesting as the other songs on Different Class, but is certainly one of the most musically fascinating pieces. Grounded in Steve Mackey’s fluid bass rhythm, the song is full of tempo shifts, key changes and unexpected starts and stops. I’d love to hear an all-instrumental version, for what I hear is the music for a potentially thrilling modern dance piece.

So many great albums fail to deliver truly satisfying endings, but I don’t think there could have been a better closer for Different Class than “Bar Italia.” If you’ve been to London, you’ve probably been there or at least passed by on your way to the theatre; if you haven’t, Bar Italia is a 22-hour a day café (15 hours on Sunday) where different social groups hang out at different hours (soccer fans in the afternoons and evenings, theatre-goers before and after, all-night celebrants taking up space to the crack of dawn). Jarvis and his friend belong to the latter clique, and have stumbled into Bar Italia after a night of clubbing spiced with ecstasy. The scene is set through a trio of flute, bass and arpeggiated guitar, a combination that blends exceptionally well with the night-weary vocal. When we meet the couple of interest, they’re not in the best of shape:

Now, if you can stand
I would like to take you by the hand, yeah
And go for a walk
Past people as they go to work
Let’s get out of this place before they tell us that we’ve just died
Oh, move, move quick, you’ve gotta move
Come on it’s through, come on it’s time
Oh, look at you, you, looking so confused
Just what did you lose?

One interpretation has Jarvis singing this song while staring into a bar mirror, but that interpretation is rendered invalid by a request he makes of his partner and by his spoken observation regarding how fucking awful that person looks:

If you can make
An order
Could you get me one?
Two sugars would be great
‘Cause I’m fading fast
And it’s nearly dawn
If they knocked down this place, this place
It’d still look much better than you

The irony of the situation comes at the end of the second chorus, where Jarvis remarks, “If we get through this alive/I’ll meet you next week, same place, same time.” What? You want a repeat of this miserable experience? Well, yes and no . . . one can be addicted to excitement, to thrills, to possibilities . . . and one could be caught on a treadmill of one’s own devising. Jarvis explains it all in the fade:

That’s what you get from clubbing it
You can’t go home and go to bed
Because it hasn’t worn off yet
And now it’s morning
There’s only one place we can go
It’s around the corner in Soho
Where other broken people go
Let’s go

Candida Doyle makes a marvelous contribution in the choruses with a whirling circus-like organ sound that mirrors the spinning heads trying to make it through another late night in Bar Italia. These are people whose lives are spinning with no direction, no purpose, but they’ll repeat the routine next week, conclusively proving the definition of insanity as doing the same thing that put you in the shithole in the first place. “Bar Italia” is a more-than-suitable ending to an album immersed in the human experience . . . the good, the bad, the ugly and the fantasized.

*****

While the reviews of Different Class were uniformly enthusiastic, I found it disappointing that no one evaluated the album through the lens of aesthetic experience.

Aesthetic experiences are highly personal; what one person experiences as aesthetic may be a colossal bore to another. Whether or not you have an aesthetic experience depends as much on your personal tastes, values and general impressions as it does on the quality of work itself. This often correlates to stage of life—sometimes we’re too young or too old to bother to open our minds and hearts to certain artists and their works. Our education also has a significant influence on our aesthetic openness. For years I studiously avoided Shakespeare because my first experience was in the half-assed public high school I attended where the tenured teacher was just holding on long enough to retire with a pension. My attitude towards Old Willie completely flipped when I saw a production of The Winter’s Tale at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival when I was in college.

Most definitions of aesthetic experience are dry and scholarly, a series of attempts to grasp the concept from a purely technical-intellectual perspective. Go ahead and Google “aesthetic experience” and prepare yourself to be less than thrilled with the results. I’ve only found one definition that truly encompasses the existential nature of the phenomenon:

An aesthetic experience is one in which your senses are operating at their peak; when you’re present in the current moment; when you’re resonating with the excitement of this thing that you’re experiencing; when you are fully alive.

Sir Ken Robinson

When listening to Different Class, I find myself completely engaged from beginning to end, undistracted by outer stimuli or inner thoughts, concentrating entirely on the stories and the music—and when the music stops, I find it impossible and undesirable to move from my chair. My senses are operating at their peak and I want the feeling to last forever. During that phase I reflect on the myriad emotions I experienced—delight, laughter, tears, empathy, outrage, surprise. I spend time appreciating the nuance in Jarvis Cocker’s delivery, the connections between musical arrangements and storylines, the discipline and tightness of the band. I try to make sense as to why this particular piece of music moved me so, and I arrive at the obvious answer: it expressed thoughts, beliefs and feelings that I had always held but could never quite articulate.

The experience of a Different Class is a completely satisfying and enriching aesthetic experience.

Blur – The Great Escape – Classic Music Review (Britpop Series)

Regular readers of this blog are aware that the proprietor approaches the work of paid music critics with healthy skepticism. Some have pretensions of grandeur (Christgau, Erlewine) while others work for publications who accept advertising from record companies (Pitchfork, Rolling Stone), assuming that readers will ignore that fundamental conflict of interest and accept their evaluations of artists working for those record companies as unbiased. In one sense, those critics are merely a reflection of the precipitous decline in professional journalism in the United States and United Kingdom—it’s all about the ratings, it’s all about the circulation, it’s all about the money, fuck the notion of journalistic standards and screw integrity. The presence of Rupert Murdoch publications in both countries has clearly facilitated the move towards inflated controversy and sensationalism in the daily journals.

The British were way, way ahead of the States in cheapening journalism; Murdoch launched his topless Page 3 as far back as 1969. The music rags soon began filling column space with outlandish opinions designed to spark controversy, and the publications made little effort to hide the fact that their #1 goal was not to provide the public with useful, carefully-researched information but to do whatever it takes to increase readership, which in turn increases advertising, which in turn makes a few self-important people very wealthy. British music critics tried very hard to identify the next big thing in music, often inflating the value of a particular artist (hello, Stone Roses) as they attempted to remain relevant and project the appearance of cutting-edge trend setters. More often than not, they lagged behind the public in that area, rallying to the support of a hot new artist in response to record sales.

The critical reaction to The Great Escape is quite instructive in this regard. On first release, it was the greatest thing to hit Britain since William the Conqueror. After all, Blur had defeated Oasis in the “Battle of Britain” when the lead single from the album (“Country House”) outsold the promotional single from Morning Glory (“Roll with It”). The message from the press was BLUR IS BETTER THAN OASIS. BLUR HAS ALWAYS BEEN BETTER THAN OASIS.

Then Oasis achieved something that no other Britpop band had come close to achieving: mass market acceptance in the United States. Q withdrew their review of The Great Escape and issued an apology; other critics piled on, accusing Blur of trying to make the British public miserable through their allegedly cynical world-view. Some accused Blur of faking their affinity for the underclasses and launched the narrative that Oasis was the real working class band. The message shifted: OASIS IS BETTER THAN BLUR. OASIS HAS ALWAYS BEEN BETTER THAN BLUR.

Even Damon Albarn got caught up in the Orwellian reassessment, defining The Great Escape as a “messy” release. As I trust an artist’s opinion of their work less than I do the opinion of a paid critic, we’ll ignore that piece of self-immolation. The truth about this shift in critical favor was best expressed by BBC music journalist James McMahon, who opined that the “critical euphoria that would prove to be short-lived – truth be told, about as long as it took publishers to realise Oasis would probably shift more magazines for them.”

Albarn wasn’t the only Blur member who lacked fond memories of the album or the experience; Graham Coxon had fucking had it with the whole Britpop scene and was ready to move on; there were also growing tensions between Coxon and the other band members. However, bad memories of the interpersonal dynamics and their mutual desire to hurry up and get to the future serve to cloud their views of the album’s worth. Regardless of tension and a pending shift in artistic direction, The Great Escape is a worthy conclusion to the “Life Trilogy.” While the quality of the album is a mixed bag (strong first half, weak middle and transitional final phase), I admire the courage of the record, captured in the willingness to call bullshit for what it is.

The album title wasn’t selected until the last minute, but it reflects the dominant theme. The characters in each story (including Damon Albarn himself) are in varying degrees attempting to avoid the truth about their lives, finding escape mechanisms in everything from sex to status, from drugs to dreams, from the latest trend to pulling all-nighters glued to the telly. To dismiss Blur’s perspective on British life as “cynical” says more about the labelers than the songs themselves; critics often use the term when they’re uncomfortable with satiric views that hit too close to home or with those who dare to disturb the status quo by exposing what’s wrong with the world. I don’t find The Great Escape particularly cynical, and only occasionally melancholy. It’s a hard look at the reality of the times, and excuse me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s pretty much what Swift, Dickens and Thackeray did in their universally honored works.

The Great Escape isn’t Parklife, and that message is communicated sonically in the edgy opening passage of “Stereotypes,” where Graham Coxon leads with a screeching B minor chord accompanied by a foreboding minor key pattern on the organ. Damon Albarn’s world-weary vocal communicates a sense of exhausted impatience with the all-too human tendency to follow a trend, to be in with the in-crowd, no matter how ludicrous the adventure. Here we have The Case of the Oversexed Divorcee, who believes she needs to fuck her brains out because . . . because that’s what divorcees are supposed to do to convince themselves they’ve still got it:

The suburbs they are sleeping
But he’s dressing up tonight
She likes a man in uniform he loves to wear it tight
They’re on the lovers sofa they’re on the patio
And when the fun is over watch themselves on video

I’ll bet she spends hours with her divorcee girlfriends comparing boyfriend dick size and bragging about the impossibly difficult Kama Sutra position she pulled off the night before. I love sex as much or more than the next person, but this is gross sex, superficial titillation designed to bolster one’s fragile ego to avoid facing the emptiness inside. The arrangement is rock-solid, with pulsating bass from Alex James, strong punctuation from Dave Rowntree and the ever-present screeching minor chord from Graham Coxon sounding the mental health alarm.

Now it’s off to . . . The Battle of Britain! From the Guardian archives:

Blur or Oasis? Oasis or Blur? Four days after the launch of Britain’s most hyped battle of the bands Manchester’s working class lads appear to be edging ahead of London’s art school trendies in the race for the No. 1 spot.

Both groups released their £2.99 singles on Monday, claiming to be bitter enemies, which led some in the music industry to compare the rivalry to that between the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

Early indications suggest that Oasis’s Roll With It is edging ahead of Blur’s Country House in sales, so the Guardian conducted its own survey of the music critics who really matter – the fans.

In Manchester, home of Oasis, one of the city’s leading music stores was buzzing with debate about the Blur-Oasis head-to-head. Andrew McQueen, assistant at Piccadilly Records, tried to give an objective assessment. He dismissed Manchester’s alleged chauvinism about Oasis as merely a mirage in a PR person’s mind. He paid Blur some gracious compliments but his loyalties soon became obvious.

“Oasis plagiarise from the great names – the Beatles, Stones, Kinks, the Who. But they make their own exciting rock and roll. It’s not pompous and has great tunes. They wear their hearts on their sleeves. They go for the jugular and move people.

“Blur plunder the past, too, but they do it with an irony and a cleverness which I don’t like. Their music has a knowing wink. Oasis seem more heartfelt, more direct. Blur are probably better musicians. They write good songs – but you don’t feel they mean it.”

This view seems to be born out by record sales: 75 to Oasis, 25 to Blur at Piccadilly. Round the corner at the Virgin store, the tally was 300 Oasis to 250 Blur.

If only today’s journalists would report genuinely important news with such doggedness and detail.

Blur did pull it out in the end, for what it’s worth. To my ears it was a no-contest battle—“Country House” is a far stronger song than “Roll with It,” the weakest of any of the singles released from Morning Glory. Kinks fans will immediately make the connection to the anti-hero of the Face to Face trilogy and the song “A House in the Country,” but unlike that character, who “don’t need no sedatives to ease his troubled mind,” Blur’s Man of the Nineties “takes all kinds of pills” and passes the day “reading Balzac and knocking back Prozac.” You don’t really need those details, for all you need to know about this self-important asshole is contained in the absolutely brilliant line, “I’m a professional cynic but my heart’s not in it.” In the context of the theme of escape, the country house represents a complete failure to leave the rat race behind, as the gentleman in question has traded one form of stress for another in the form of health nazi paranoia (“He doesn’t drink, smoke, laugh/Takes herbal baths in the country”). The use of the phrase “animal farm” leads most people to draw a connection to Orwell, but the video for the song, full of bouncy, smiling, dimwitted babes, suggests the animalistic, mechanical sex of a perpetual orgy. The arrangement is terribly exciting, featuring an ironically jaunty beat with a stunning build to the chorus where Blur mingles rising lead and background vocals to reach a satisfying climax. I also love the high harmony bridge with its hints of Beatles and Beach Boys as the voices join together to reveal the awful truth that this wealthy, entitled prick feels terribly sorry for himself.

I’m not 100% sure where the critical perception of cynicism came from, but the melancholy “Best Days” is a likely source because it explodes the long-standing myth peddled by regret-filled old farts that the best years of our lives are when we’re young and responsibility-free. Not only is that notion total bullshit, but it sets up young people to believe that something’s wrong with them when the good times they’re supposed to be having fail to materialize. While the having-to-work part is a bit of a drag, I’m having a much better time in my thirties than I ever did as a confused, physiologically unstable and uninformed teen hanging out with other insecure people who also had no idea what the fuck they were doing. Since celebration of youth was a key component of the Britpop scene, Blur is to be commended for repeatedly pointing out (see “Girls and Boys”) that the mindless search for sex and substance-fueled good times isn’t the best way to establish a foundation for a meaningful future.

The opening verses set up the fundamental problem of modern humanity: our perpetual state of separation from one another. The bells toll at St. Mary-le-Bow church as they have on that site for centuries as Londoners exit the city hoping “someone’s waiting out there for them.” Meanwhile, a cabbie ferries the young drunks around Soho, compensating for that unpleasant, impersonal task by dreaming of sunnier climes. In a vain search for something remotely resembling intimacy, the poetic camera zooms in to take a closer look and comes up empty:

Trellick Tower’s been calling
I know she’ll leave me in the morning
In hotel cells, listening to dial tones
Remote controls and cable moans
In his drink, he’s talking
Gets disconnected sleepwalking back home

Other people wouldn’t like to hear you
If you said that these are the best days of our lives
Other people turn around and laugh at you
If you said that these are the best days of our lives

The music is quite lovely in a melancholy sense, somewhat reminiscent of the structures and norms of the baroque rock of the mid-60’s. I adore the descending figure that serves as Graham Coxon’s guitar solo, where he repeats the relational pattern of the notes as he moves down the fretboard, reinforcing the motif of disappointment. The chorus harmonies are again excellent, and though it didn’t make the cut as a single, I’d have to say that “Best Days” is my favorite song on the album.

Our travels now take us to the place where most of us go to drown our troubles to meet the “Charmless Man,” the embodiment of a person decked out in all the trappings of status with all the depth of an evaporating puddle of rain. Though he meets all the criteria of one who “has it made” (a portfolio, an expensive and empty education from a superficially prestigious school and A-list entry to all the fashionable places), it’s all for naught, as his status fails to impress anyone. I’m certainly not impressed that “he knows his claret from his Beaujolais,” which is like knowing the difference between a Guinness and a Diet Coke. The only thing he’s got going for him is that all his acquaintances are equally charmless and completely supportive in maintaining appearances:

He thinks his educated airs, those family shares will protect him
That we’ll respect him
He moves in circles of friends who just pretend
That they like him, he does the same to them
And when you put it all together
There’s the model of a charmless man

It’s no surprise that his secret role model is Ronnie Kray, the head of a notoriously brutal criminal enterprise who evaded the authorities for quite some time because his nightclubs were popular with the Charmless Man Set. Perhaps if Ronnie were around today in our more corruption-supportive environment, he’d be up for Prime Minister, and if you doubt that assertion, let me draw your attention to the gangster enterprise running the United States. Our Charmless Man would be a great fit for the Trump administration, willing to mold himself into any shape likely to result in increased status, let values and integrity be damned. The rollicking music reflects a party where the musicians are trying with all their might to keep the good times going, and while it works just fine, I think a small horn section with growling saxophones and exaggerated trombone slides would have highlighted the gangsterism more effectively.

If you were searching for clues indicating that Blur was feeling a bit restless within the confines of Britpop, you need look no further than “Fade Away.” Though the theme of suburban ennui fits nicely within those boundaries, the music is . . . well . . . certainly Latin-influenced . . . almost but not quite mariachi . . . occasionally avant-garde dissonant but not quite jazz . . . electronically-spiced . . . with flavors of cheap and cheesy. The glue that holds it all together comes from Alex James on the bass, who clearly left it all in the studio and probably wound up with some impressive blisters on his fingers. Though the musical style may be hard to pin down, the lyrics tell a story of lives lost to cultural expectations that neither husband or wife understand in the least—like robots, they just do what they’re programmed to do:

They stumbled into their lives
In a vague way became man and wife
One got the other they deserved one another
They settled in a brand new town
With people from the same background

Of course they did. These are people in desperate need of sameness, because different is threatening. The most damning sequence appears in the second verse:

He noticed he had visible lines
She worried about her behind
Their birth had been the death of them
It didn’t really bother them

Their birth had been the death of them. For these people, life is summarized in the chorus: “All you ever do is fade away.” If I were to encounter this couple in the street, it would take every ounce of strength I have to stop myself from shouting, “Get off the fucking planet, assholes! You’re wasting space, food and energy!” I’d feel completely justified in doing so, because these are the sort of unaware people who feel threatened by diversity and vote their fears . . . and we’ve had enough of that lately, in both Britain and America.

“Topman” takes its name from the trendy menswear chain, and Blur was thoughtful enough to mention Hugo and Boss to avoid any perceptions of favoritism. I think this song is a hoot, not because of a brilliant musical structure or stunning lyrics but for the deep-voice background vocals repeating the syllable “Oh” with supporting harmonica in the opening passage. The sound reminds me of Johnny Preston’s “Running Bear,” a 1959 monument to American racism that tried to capitalize on the cowboys-and-Indians fascination of the time by featuring white people using low-scale vocalizations to mimic their perception of how “Indians” communicate. The young braves of England don’t dress up in war paint but they do cling to the latest fashions and compensate for their youthful lack of wealth by powering up putt-putt cars (Clios, Saxos and Fiats) and loudly cruising through the streets (the boy-racers in the States did the same to Hondas and old-model Acuras). The Nineties were the period when “personal branding” really began, led by the garment industry when they started using clothes to sell clothes by advertising on the clothes themselves. I try to imagine building my identity around the clothing brands I choose and the cigarettes I smoke and just get fucking depressed at the thought of it.

The Great Escape isn’t cynical! This is real shit, people! Kids have killed other kids for their Nikes! Wake the fuck up! Our societies create insanity!

As was true in Parklife, the weakest part of the album is in the middle. It begins with “The Universal,” a song featuring lyrics about a future where we all go into mass denial about the ugliness of reality with the assistance of a universal drug. As Aldous Huxley had already covered the concept pretty thoroughly in Brave New World, the song doesn’t break any new ground. Worse still, the music is as un-futuristic as one can imagine, a Mantovani-esque string-heavy arrangement with Henry Mancini overtones. “The Universal” began life as a ska number (bad idea) and was headed for the crapper until Damon Albarn “saved” the song with the string section. I think early Pulp might have been able to do something with the song, given their occasional experimental leanings, but as it is, it’s a promise of something big that fails to deliver. Unlike “The Universal,” “Mr Robinson’s Quango” skips the pretentious opening but also falls flat in a too-crude attack on political appointees who fatten themselves at the public trough. “He Thought of Cars” continues the mid-album slump using a weak metaphor of “things that are supposed to get us to destinations” that only brings us to Destination: Loneliness—a theme more effectively treated elsewhere on the album. The “meh” part of the album ends with “It Could Be You,” an exposé of the absurd fantasy that a person can only be happy when they win the lottery, a topic that would have been treated more effectively had they given us the end of the story—that many lottery winners wind up broke, besieged and in therapy.

The pre-mayoral version of Ken Livingstone steps into save the day with his drier-than-the-driest-martini narration of a typical day in the life of one Ernold Same:

Ernold Same awoke from the same dream
In the same bed at the same time
Looked in the same mirror, made the same frown
And felt the same way as he did every day
Then Ernold Same caught the same train
At the same station, sat in the same seat
With the same nasty stain
Next to same old what’s-his-name
On his way to the same place with the same name
To do the same thing again and again and again
Poor old Ernold Same

Blur then launches the musical version, a nicely layered vocal ensemble that confirms Ernold’s endless loop of sameness and adds a touch of compassion to the recitation of the all-too familiar dreary routine followed by billions of people across the globe.

When your single, solitary goal in life is to become the attractive, devil-may care rich guy in the television commercial, you are by definition a hollow man—and the lead character of “Globe Alone.” Anticipating the lo-fi adventures of their next album, Blur comes close to pop punk in this high-speed romp where Dave Rountree gets a nice workout and Damon Albarn does his best Johnny Rotten imitation on the choruses. The lead character is such a disconnected, self-centered loser that he a.) gets a stiff prick when he fondles his new cell phone, b.) fantasizes about Sharon Stone (I used to see her every now and then at the Whole Foods Market on California and Franklin back in the day and she was pretty hot) and c.) takes comfort in his insistence that he “wouldn’t be seen at bedtime/Without putting Calvin Kleins on.” Logic would dictate that the people who do the laundry for him learned to slip on sanitary gloves before they picked up his crusty shorts and tossed them into the wash. The contradiction between the assertive music and the happy-slappy la-la-las create a psychological tension that simply can’t hold, but rather than opting for the classic nervous breakdown, this hero of materialists everywhere opts to believe that the outside world exists for his convenience and no one else:

He is because he saw it on a commercial break
And if he doesn’t get what he wants then gets a headache
Because he needs it, wants it, almost, loves it
He’s here on his own, all globe alone
Here on his own, all globe alone
Here on his own

Please don’t introduce me to anyone like this guy. Ever.

And I’m not sure I’d like to meet “Dan Abnormal,” aka Damon Albarn sans the rockstar regalia. In this self-reflective piece, he describes his “real life” as one combining television binging with trips to McDonald’s, where he unnecessarily threatens the employees with bodily harm unless they cough up the burger and chips. Hardly the glamorous life of a celebrity, but I believe that’s the point of the song: to blow the rockstar image to smithereens and show his fan base that he’s subject to the same petty whims and neuroses that dominate their lives. At the time, Albarn was experiencing the classic identity crisis that comes with the shift from normal life to the spotlight, one of many cultural icons who have suffered its debilitating effects in the form of nervous breakdowns (Thom Yorke, Ray Davies) or immersion in the drug scene (too many to mention). Kurt Cobain bemoaned his depersonalizing experience in “Smells Like Team Spirit” in the line, “Here we are now—entertain us,” and Albarn echoes that sentiment in the opening stanza (“Meanie Leanie come on down/Come and entertain the town”). It’s a tricky balance between complaining about the fact that the transformation has given you wealth and the fame you thought you wanted and detached commentary about the fundamentally dehumanizing process of idolization, and I think Damon Albarn struck the right tone here.

Echoes of Kurt Cobain and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” appear in the penultimate track, “Entertain Me.” For those of you who are not Nirvana fans, I’m referring to the lines, “I feel stupid and contagious/Here we are now—entertain us!” Damon Albarn’s take is somewhat similar, directed more at the general population caught in the humdrum than demanding teenagers. The most interesting diversion comes in the second verse, where he takes on the transactional nature of mating in our technologically advanced society:

At his and hers dating
Bored minds agree
Requirements to be stated
And replies awaited
She wants a loose fit
He wants instant whip
Guesstimates her arrival
Will she want it really badly?

What a weird, weird world we have created.

The song opens up with a pattern that resembles a high-speed version of “I Am the Walrus,” but that proves to be a feint when Dave Rowntree enters and slows the perceived tempo. The deceleration actually serves to increase the energy of the song, as Rowntree’s punctuation gives the song a strong, steady beat. In contrast, Albarn’s vocals on the verses are half-narrated in a mechanical, bored-with-it-all tone that strengthens the theme of human detachment. The chord pattern features those subtle changes that excite me no end—a shift from the root A major in the verses to A minor in the chorus and pattern-closing adjustment from straight G to the augmented G to emphasize the sour note. The effect of those minuscule adjustments is palpable, complementing the bitter edge in the lyrics.

The Great Escape ends with a curious song about life in the Japanese workforce, “Yuko and Hiro.” Few cultures embraced workaholic behavior as thoroughly as the Japanese, but that embrace was not the manic behavior of Americans desperately trying to get ahead of each other but an allegedly honorable exchange of extra work for lifetime employment (at least in the larger firms). Although some progress has been made in the last two decades in reducing the length of the workweek, the norm of undying loyalty to the company still inspires overwork—so much so that the Japanese have a term for “death by overwork” (karoshi). This is the environment Blur attempts to capture in “Yuko and Hiro,” a deeply sad state of affairs where love and companionship are available only one day a week and booze is essential to survival:

We work together
We work for the company
That looks to the future
We work hard to please them
They will protect us

I never see you
We’re never together
I’ll love you forever
I drink in the evenings
It helps with relaxing
I can’t sleep without drinking

The music is appropriately morose and semi-tragic, featuring loose approximations of the dissonance (at least to Western ears) of Japanese music and some lovely vocals from a female trio. What I like about the song is that it makes listeners aware that the challenges of finding a meaningful life in the context of a consumerist culture aren’t limited to the British Isles, but represent a global quality-of-life challenge. I wish they would have let the song fade into oblivion rather than tacking on a harmonium-driven music hall fragment to the end, for it interferes with a very powerful closing message.

As things turned out, The Great Escape was hardly the end of Britpop (as Pulp would conclusively demonstrate with the biggest fucking exclamation point ever), but it was the end of Blur’s uneasy flirtation with the movement. Though they still remain popular in the Isles to this day, Blur and the individual members moved on to explore different forms of music, from electronica to lo-fi to hip-hop. Regardless of their later achievements, they will always be remembered for the trilogy, and I can’t listen to the Blur of the 90’s without wishing for a tectonic shift in popular tastes that embraces intelligent, melodic and socially-aware music.

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