It’s not quite Dick Rowe passing on The Beatles, but the story of Blur’s second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish, underlines the difficulties of forecasting success. In 1992, with British indie music in thrall to grunge, Blur dug into English pop tradition instead, crafting songs that recalled the storytelling of The Kinks, XTC’s arty adventure, and Lennon and McCartney’s melodic nous. It didn’t please their record company. Frontman Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree were told no one was interested in British pop and they should consider recruiting Nirvana producer Butch Vig. Blur stood firm and was vindicated when Modern Life emerged as a founding pillar of Britpop in 1993. Early architects of a cultural phenomenon that stretched into film, fashion, and politics, they became one of Britain’s biggest bands with subsequent albums Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995). They’ve been left to follow their own intuition and thumb their noses at prevailing trends ever since.
Britpop made them superstars, but Blur—who formed at Goldsmiths art college in London in 1988—were one of the first to leave the party. On their fifth album, 1997’s Blur, they pivoted sharply back towards America and Coxon’s love of the alt-rock underground. It earned them a US breakthrough via the gale-force woo-hoos of “Song 2.” Two years later, 13 revealed a looser, proggier, and more electronic Blur, before they reacted to the temporary departure of Coxon by sampling car hoods and uniting punk, dance, and African music on Think Tank in 2003. Side projects including Albarn’s Gorillaz, Coxon’s solo records, James’ cheese-making, and Rowntree’s political career have slowed production, but 2015’s The Magic Whip was another lesson in subverting pop norms while writing killer melodies.
Beyond brash signature hits such as “Parklife” and “Song 2,” Blur had repeatedly proven to be masters of melancholy. The heartbroken, lo-fi gospel of “Tender,” the beautifully careworn “Out of Time,” and the wistful “Under the Westway” offer the clearest windows into the psyche of one of Britain’s greatest songwriters. “I’m very neurotic sometimes,” Albarn told Apple Music. “I struggle with melancholia, but I know how to embellish it with joy.”
ORIGINColchester, Essex, England