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Blur - The Great Escape
Reviewed by NME, September 1995

coverDON'T PRETEND you saw it coming. In fact, don't even bother going back and combing the grooves looking for it. Because just as no-one could have guessed that the authors of 'Love Me Do' and 'Please Please Me' would within five years come up with 'A Day In The Life' or 'Helter Skelter', there was nothing in 'She's So High or 'Bang' to suggest wonders as glorious and diverse as 'This Is A Low' or 'Girls And Boys'. You suspect that not even Blur themselves couldn't have dreamed of 'The Great Escape'.

For when we first met Blur they were terminally of-the-moment. Even their name was a label invention, for Christ's sake, calculated to say as little as possible, offend no-one and fit into whatever trend was available. Five years ago there seemed little doubt that, as NME put it in reviewing their debut album, "Blur are merely the present of rock'n'roll".

'Popscene' should have told us that Blur were different. It ranted, waved and drowned around the turn of 1991/92, as the butt-ends of fraggle, shoegazing and baggy were being stubbed out by the grunge invasion. Spitting contrary attitude and prickly personality, pogoing in rolled up jeans, Fred Perrys and V-neck jumpers, and biting back at the hands that had under-fed them, suddenly Blur were out on their own. It was the moment they began setting the scene instead of being shackled by it, the moment they began defining the zeitgeist. It carved the first scrapings of a niche in British music, established permanently with a parochial identity-stamp and rekindled love affair with London and its mod heritage that was 'Modern Life Is Rubbish'. That in turn was magnified tenfold by the semi-detached celebration/indictment of mass consumer culture, and the thoughts of a 25-year-old everyman that was 'Parklife'.

Now we can only demand a masterpiece. And they've damn near delivered it.

'The Great Escape' is a spectacularly accomplished, sumptuous, heart-stopping and inspirational album. It sees a Blur who've achieved what they strove so doggedly for, and who are on top of the world (or London, at least) looking down on creation for any explanations they can find. Or more importantly for some glimmer of hope, empathy and love amid the mess of pre-millennial mediocrity, homogeneity and gloom they see around them.

And the more it sucks you in, the more you realise it's shot through with a schizophrenia that has evidently been encroaching on Mr Albarn since he last opened his heart to us. Every aspect of modern life Damon (whose vision, for the most part, this record realises) was able to observe - detached, with a smug, sneer-tinged affection on 'Parklife' - he now sees haunting his own life in one way or another. Yuppie stress, impending madness, professional drudgery, no escape from mundane stereotype, the goofy drunken 'besht mate', loneliness, acceptance of grateful second best. To take up the given theme, everyone's scrambling for an escape, our hero included. Even the hung-over personal confessions sound more confused and desperate than ever. He's still laughing, still on top, but you sometimes get the feeling he's hanging on by a dangerously fraying thread. All human life is here, and Blur sound like they're living it while we listen.

The result is an album which, even in the wake of a run of exceptional albums by British bands, sets a new standard for British guitar pop in the '90s. If Noel Oasis' strength derives from an ambition to be the John Lennon of his generation, then Blur want to be Lennon and McCartney. Which means 'The Great Escape' is so rammed with tunes, ideas, emotions, humour, tragedy, farce, and edgy beauty that it's utterly beyond contemporary compare.

Not that you'd immediately realise it. The opening two tracks, 'Stereotypes' and 'Country House', initially seem to tread familiar waters - feisty, upbeat singalong pop, voyeuristic third person tales of suburban characters and their sad saucy secrets. But repeated plays reveal one of Blur's greatest strengths - they way they stack tune upon tune upon image upon idea, all of which unfold wonderfully and often frighteningly in your head from an apparently one-dimensional embryo.

Take 'Country House'. If only because it's the one you know. It first strikes you as 'Oompah oompah la la la ooh cheeky very nice worralaugh cheers', but then the bitter, sneery detachment and sarcasm starts to pervade, the exuberance and good humour hollowing. The two listens later, the minor chords begin to stand out, the bubbles of angst and melancholy start to surface from the insanely echoing "blow blow me out" subtext and what was a classically boisterous, carefree knees-up starts sounding fragile and even a little heartbreaking.

It's a by-product of the main fuel of Blur's genius - an incredible, almost obsessional attention to detail. You can see it from the chord notations and myriad visual metaphors on the sleeve, to the startling atmospheric sounds that pepper many of these songs. It means they can produce multi-faceted, multi-layered, cinematic pop records that will keep provoking new melodies, pictures, emotions and ideas as you live with them. It's got to the point where Blur just don't write songs, they compose them.

Damon Albarn rarely has to say everything he means in so many words, since this record evokes a continual vivid maelstrom of moods with astonishing skill. Blur have perfected a soundscaping art no-one ever has the ambition to incorporate in modern pop nowadays. You can hear it everywhere here, chiefly through Graham 's amazing melanges of guitar, but also in subtly masterful brush strokes such as the monotonous undercurrent of austere, inhuman factory conveyer belts that haunt 'Best Days'; the smoggy motorway undercarriage of 'He Thought Of Cars'; the sonic whirlpool of neurotic, tragi-comic insanity that 'Mr Robinson's Quango' drowns in; the comical sub-Morricone spaghetti western whistling that follows 'Top Man' through his wide-boy rampage; even the sterile muzaky dial-a-waltz serenity that soundtracks the tortuous mundanity of 'Ernold Same'.

'The Great Escape' is the work of a band approaching the height of their musical powers and fine testament to this is 'Fade Away', which succeeds in stealing the cream of The Specials ' eeriest, emptiest moments and spreading it over a supremely melancholy trawl through the detritus of a pointless suburban marriage, weary trombone and all, and then monotonising the scene to a hypnotically affecting logical conclusion. If no one can be truly original in the 90s, they can instead take the inspiration and run rings round it, ultimately outshining their heroes.

Much as they would probably hate to admit it, Blur stab closest to our heart when Damon's at his lowest ebb. 'He Thought Of Cars' is almost submerged in dizzy despair, his voice cracking under the weight of trying to find solace in some human touch amid a world obsessed with work, success and status at the expense of its soul.

Likewise, 'The Universal', the impossibly elegant, silken-stringed epic peak of the album, talks of karaoke bars, satellite TV and lottery pipe dreams as the best we can hope for come the year 2000. The sting in the tail is, of course, that we're all so Prozaced out and desperate that we'' accept it all with good grace. "When the days they seem to fall from you, well, just let them go... Oh lord.

The barest glimpse of the Albarn soul we see here, however, is in the final track of the album, 'Yuko And Hiro', where woozy, wobbly Casio technik muzak accompanies (possibly autobiographical?) lyrics that detail a hopeless situation in someone's love life: "I never see you, we're never together". Sob. But he'll survive, because he's still determined to stave off self-pity and pessimism, suggests 'Best Days', a gorgeously dewy-eyed, croaky contemplation of the lonely uncertainties that tear at our existence. It ends in an unashamedly naive, almost Morrissey-esque assertion that "Other people would break out in a clod sweat if you said that these are the best days of our lives".Well, cheers.

We've barely touched on half the songs that glue this album together as such a marvellously eclectic, head-scrambling tour-de-force, such as the groovily lolloping coda to 'Girls And Boys' that is 'Entertain Me', the brilliantly pithy, Madness -tinged 'Charmless Man', the vaguely self-mocking appeal for understanding of the anagram-titled 'Dan Abnormal', or the gut-twistingly aggressive 'Globe Alone'. But that's because it leaves you with so many things to think about and so many mini-tunes to keep you awake at night that you could never hope to consume it all in one sitting.

It falls just short of being a masterpiece - there are undeniable weaknesses in this huge labyrinthine web of an album: the slightly restrictive third person lyrical approach; the obsession with mildly anachronistic sit-com caricatures; the cultural tourist attraction to a rubbish modern lifestyle that Damon doesn't always know that well; the vague filler quality of a couple of tunes; the continuing mischievous affection for frivolous, flimsy muso-kitsch.

But if there are failings, they only serve to emphasise the most inspiring aspect of the whole affair - that in spite, or maybe because of the dazzling range of its qualities, you can easily imagine Blur making even greater records in future.

After all the trials, tribulations, Brits, Brats, and Number One ego contests, this is Blur's real triumph, truly their finest hour. But that's not all. The era-defining 'life' trilogy complete, 'The Great Escape' should merely be the end of the beginning for Blur and a weird and wonderful bittersweet taste of things to come.

9/10                                                                                                   Johnny Cigarettes
 

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