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Blur live at the Munchenbryggeriet, Stockholm
11 February 1999
Reviewed by NME

Damon at the MunchenbryggerietTender is the night. Tender are the ears as the Swedish cold takes hold. And tender is the sight of Damon Albarn smoking a cigarette. As you may have heard: when there's pretty much nothing else left, you've got to cling to something. A thump of a massive bass drum, and he's off again with his private motto. "C'mon, c'mon, get through it...".

Get through it is right. No longer part of indie pop's reigning couple, no longer a cultural commentator, no longer, even, the would-be evolver of a new lo-fidelity sound, everything has changed for Damon Albarn. Even tonight's location is a euphemism for a psychological condition: nearly four years ago, Blur held the official warm-up gig for their 'The Great Escape' album in a Camden pub. And now, for new album '13', have you heard? Blur have completely gone to Sweden.

It's an ironic thing, but the terrible truth is that for Blur to get properly back on track, to truly rediscover the genius streak that left them about halfway through 'The Great Escape', Damon Albarn had to lose everything. Relationship. His mind, slightly. But along with this, he's lost bad things too: the self-consciousness that made the much-deliberated frazzlement and hard-to-be-a-rock-star shtick of 'Blur' difficult to stomach, not to mention the feeling that there's anything left to lose. He's gone. Albarn, he bark like Mark E Smith. Albarn, he dance like Michael Stipe. Albarn, his music's out to lunch.

For here, for an assembled crowd of record company employees from around the world and about a thousand moderately excitable Swedes, he presents derangement in a cup, and it is fantastic.

Like you know already from forthcoming single 'Tender', this is all about getting through it, and so by coming and playing his new album virtually all the way through - bar Soft Machine-like epic 'Caramel' - you see the death-defying leaps through flaming hoops that he and Blur have leaped. They can be The Dead Kennedys (this is 'BLUREMI'). They can be Bowie raised on a diet of 'Song 2' ('Bugman'). Only in the "one that Graham sings", 'Coffee And TV', do they remotely resemble anything of their former compositional poise.

Right at the end, there's pure heartbreak, and this is a song called 'No Distance Left To Run'. Graham bends a string of dissonant moroseness, and what steps forward is the full might of Blur's power when unleashed on something as genuine as sorrow. "When you see me", Damon chokes, "turn your back and walk away". It is heartbreaking.

Perversely, though, the whole event seems to be completely enjoyable. Pushing a set of new and nine-tenths unheard material forces the issue of Blur's - post-Britpop, post-'Song 2' - identity on their own terms even more. And back to basics is the thing: Blur are back to working it as they had to in 1990. For a start there's the nearly ever-present guitar, the sneaky cigarette. But elsewhere it's the monkey-boy haircut, and the pure boundless effort of Damon's performance. It's the things that made him Damon Albarn, before he was Damon From Blur.

There are even larks. Ever mockney, Damon announces a song as 'Bowel'. Everything stops as Graham shakes his head at the regional disingenuousness of Damon's pronunciation. "'Bowel'?" he says. "Eh?" The song is called 'Battle', and Graham is laughing. Damon jumps a song in the set list, and Graham loses it. "No-no-no-no!" he panics. "You're freaking me aht!" "Freaking me aht? Oh man!" says Damon, clutching his temple at the expense of Graham's neuroses.

Get through it? You could say so: with music as distinct from any of their own as they are distinct from each other. The nervous wreck. The one with the newly broken heart inside his Fred Perry. The ponce, and... well, and Dave. Lucky bastards. Lucky '13'.

John Robinson

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