On record

Blur, 13

John goes on a long walk through what is probably the best break-up albums of all time.

The year was 1990. Graham Coxon, Blur guitarist and huge fan of the Tank Girl comics, convinces a 22 year old Damon Albarn and the rest of their band to meet the cartoon’s creator, Jamie Hewlett, to be interviewed for Deadline magazine, home to the comic strip. It did not go well – as Hewllet recalls, Albarn was “a wanker” and bassist Alex James, pissed-off drunk, threw up during the interview. This first impression, coupled with the fact that Jamie then started dating Graham’s ex-girlfriend, Jane Oliver of Elastica, would have us believe that history between Blur and Hewlett crashed before it even started.

Fast forward to 1998. People are starting to associate the surnames Clinton and Lewinsky, Google was founded and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was probably the most famous TV show in the world. Britpop’s hottest couple, Damon Albarn and Elastica lead singer, Justine Frischmann (at this point I have to assume that the women in that band must have been something rather special), end their 8-year long, highly-publicised relationship. Graham, dealing with alcoholism at the time, was struggling to cope with the band’s huge leap into superstardom and his fan-awarded status of Guitar God. The relationship between the two had seen better days, and the fact that Albarn and Hewlett, also recently single following his break-up with Jane, opted to share a flat only added more tension to an already strained relation. This bachelor’s pad would end up becoming the launch pad for the world’s most famous cartoon band, Gorillaz, as both flatmates agreed that artistic creativity was the best cure for a broken heart. Before the world was introduced to 2-D, Murdoc Niccals, Noodle and Russel Hobbs (that’s a story for a much longer Balls Deep), however, came Blur’s sixth record, 13, released in 1999.

And why am I telling you all this, dear reader? Because, as you must know by now, contextualization is key, and providing you with this background will help you understand the environment on which 13 was written and recorded. Openly emotional and full of yearning, the album ends up being a documentary of sorts, of everything that was binding the band together, and of everything that was pulling them apart. Graham resented his fellow bandmates, chiefly Damon for his control of Blur, musically and publicly, and Alex for his playboy lifestyle. Damon, heart-broken and hurt, reached an all-time low following his breakup with Justine while also struggling with heroin addiction. Needless to say, the canvas was set for both to paint Blur’s music in much darker shades and, as one might imagine, the recording sessions were anything but peaceful. In the words of drummer Dave Rowntree, “things were starting to fall apart between the four of us”. Best case scenario, one or more of them would turn up late or not at all. Worst case, someone showed up drunk or stormed off in the middle of the recordings.

Despite this overall tense and abusive environment, Blur produced an absolute masterpiece that is probably the greatest break-up album of all time. Heavily influenced by Albarn’s love for Frischmann and his struggle to move on, 13 addresses life, relationships, and how to deal with losing a part of you forever. Your heart will be broken, you will scar and may never heal. You may find yourself spending days wasted trying to numb away the pain, and you will almost certainly doubt everything you once believed in – love, friendships, family, talent. But that’s OK, that’s just the way it is. I know I am only 27 but hell, even I know by now that no one leaves their twenties without their fair share of emotional damage – Damon turned 30 the year his 8-year long relationship came to an end. Life is a fight, and 13 knows it. But the record is also so much more than that – it is a perfect example of how beauty can come from chaos. It is Blur’s most experimental album, with long-time producer Stephen Street being replaced by ambient music master William Orbit, who emphasized and revelled in the band’s mess at the time, rather than cleaning it. The result is the record that relates more to the band’s name than Britpop, as the sound on the album is a strange and fascinating mix of deep space noises, vacuum sounds, guitars that do not sound like guitars, psychedelic effects and distorted voices. In a word, it all sounds, well… blurred. It is the decisive and final step Blur took away from Britpop and towards more experimental and darker themes – a process faintly initiated on their previous record, the self-titled Blur, released in 1997.

13 might not be Blur’s most popular record, but it has everything that makes Damon Albarn a hero akin to David Bowie, Prince or Freddie Mercury. In 13 we finally see Albarn opening up and writing some of his most openly devastating lyrics, securing Blur’s future by addressing increasingly mature emotions while also moving into more cerebral and dense musical territories. Despite the strong influence of Graham on the creative direction of the record, 13 is a Damon Albarn album from start to finish. While writing 13, Albarn found himself taking his music seriously for the first time and wanting to be honest with what he was feeling, resulting in a complex set of lyrics evocative of emotions, pain and delirium. The record’s opener, Tender, is a gospel-like track that dwells into his relationship and break-up with Justine. With beautiful background vocals provided by the London Community Gospel Choir, Albarn delivers irony-filled lines such as “Love is the greatest thing that we have” or “Come on, come on, come on, get through it” after admitting that it was his heart that screwed up his life. It is a crushing catharsis that resonates with all those that have had their hearts broken – upon first hearing it on the radio, Frischmann admitted she cried. Tender was released as 13’s first single and, despite selling 170,000 copies in the first week of sales, “only” reached #2 in the UK, topped by none other than Britney Spears’ breakthrough single, …Baby One More Time– a clear example of how the world has always needed more audio snobs. To this day, Tender remains one of Blur’s most cherished songs and, when the band re-formed in 2009, Graham’s lines “Oh my baby / Oh my baby / Oh why? / Oh my” were powerfully sung by the audience to bring the band back to stage on Glastonbury and Hyde Park, bringing Mr. Albarn to tears. Coffee & TV, the record’s second single, saw Graham Coxon taking over lead vocals over Albarn in one of the few Blur songs where this occurs – it documents his personal struggles with alcoholism and socializing, and how he tries to replace both with, you guessed it, coffee and TV. Arguably the track that sounds closer to their former selves, Coffee & TV is a powerful ode to starting over that is truly worth a careful listen – also, the music video where a milk carton goes searching for Graham is absolutely phenomenal, having won several awards.

1992 takes its name from the year when it was originally written and recorded, one year after Damon and Justine started dating and the year Blur almost split up due to personal and management difficulties. Deemed very dark and depressing at the time, the recording never saw the light until Damon found it on tape several years later, re-recorded it with a new twist and decided it would fit perfectly in 13. Coxon’s howling guitars, together with the constant feedback and echo-chamber isolation, evokes both desolation and isolation, as if they are a band playing all alone on Earth, if not somewhere else completely different, perhaps many galaxies away. 1992 aligns perfectly with the “lost at sea” feel of the whole album, and it is inexplicable how it perfectly captures that mood with its insane instrumental haze and astounding musical construction. In the context of the whole album, lines such as “What do you owe me? / The price of your piece of mind / You’d love my bed / You took it all instead” clearly indicate that Damon and Justine’s breakup must have been quite a painful one. B.L.U.R.E.M.I, probably the most forgettable track of 13, then paves the way for Battle, one of the record’s strangest and more experimental songs. It is a fantastic combination of Albarn’s soothing vocals, Coxon’s screeching guitar, James’ tremendous grinding bass and Rowntree’s drumming loop that beautifully develops into a dark, twisted fantasy, surrounded by a haze of spectacular guitar riffs. While some consider this to be the song where the album begins to lose its interest, I personally find it to be the opposite. Battle sets the mood of what’s to come – a unique atmosphere of melancholy and despair, a rollercoaster of emotions much like what everyone experiences after an intense break-up. Anger? Check. Rage? Check. Confusion? Check. Sadness? Check. Resignation? Check. Check, check and check. Albarn perfectly encapsulates the collapse of his 8-year long relationship with Justine into raw, abrasive and even self-destructive lyrics that place him in a small gallery reserved for the greatest musicians.

On Mellow Song, we see Damon serenading the Moon before being deafened by pounding drums and fuzzy guitars in a crescendo that culminates with a fascinating jam that only a truly great band could pull off, before moving on to Trailerpark, another highlight of 13 – clearly influenced by Albarn’s secret side project Gorillaz, being developed at the time with flatmate Jamie Hewlett, it is a not-quite-blues ballad in which he laments “I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones”. One can just speculate, but in the context of the whole album, associating the loss of his girl to a band famously known for doing drugs might be perceived as Albarn’s resignation to the fact that he lost his love to a druggy lifestyle. After all, Damon and Justine’s growing dependence on drugs ended up being a big part of their break-up. With exquisite production and hypnotizing guitar riffs, Trailerpark transports you to a world of debauchery and deprivation, where a hopeless Damon Albarn wanders around and laments the loss of his love. Trailerpark also ties beautifully with the following track, and probably 13’s darkest moment – Caramel. Addressing both his heroin addiction (“caramel” being a commonly-used term for heroin when smoked) and his struggle to move on from the loss of the woman he thought to be the love of his life, it is a 7-minute build-up of cries and sorrow that also signals Blur’s new direction – a gloomy atmosphere of suspenseful guitars, lamentations and yearn, wrapped in experimental sounds and exquisite production. Caramel – and 13 in general – clearly show that the more mature Blur were interested in making more than just 3-minute smashers, so it is fair to say that 13 did not have a lot of success when considered against the teenage mania that skyrocketed Blur into global success on the back of tracks such as Parklife, Country House, Boys & Girls or Song 2. As a review from BBC Music put it at the time, “this was a band now completely out of love with pop”.

Orbit’s laid-back approach of “do whatever the hell you want” also led to impressive tracks such as the brilliantly contorted Trimm Trabb. In 13, Graham explores a wider and more diverse range of sounds, destroying notions and traditions of classical guitarists with heavy feedback, drilling and distortions, particularly evident on Trimm Trabb. After the second chorus – out of nowhere – we are faced with a blaring distorted guitar (that sounds nothing like a guitar), courtesy of the mind and skilful fingers of Coxon. But even then, in the midst of all the crazy riffs, what really punches you in the gut is Albarn mourning “I sleep alone”, “That’s just the way it is” or “I doze, doze away”. Although intended to be a criticism of a consumerist world, where everyone is so concerned with keeping up with the latest trends (Trimm Trabb was actually an Adidas trainer “like the flash boys had”), as with all songs on 13, the ever-present spectre of failed relationships hovers over Trimm Trabb, adding an extra level of depth to a seemingly simple song. It is also a perfect example of how Damon and Graham’s very unique and differentiated musical views and influences, which had previously resulted in as many musical successes as failures, could work in chaotic but weirdly zen harmony.

And finally, after all this explosion of bare emotions and rage, comes resignation. No Distance Left to Run, the lyrical closer of the record, is the ultimate break-up song. Albarn opens his veins, sighing “It’s over / You don’t need to tell me / I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep” and cries his heart out as he acknowledges that his love is not coming back (“I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life / I got no distance left to run”). Few Blur tracks present us with such bare emotions as No Distance Left to Run – even Albarn admits that the song upsets him, as it represents acknowledgement of the end of a defining period of his life. “You have to be very careful when you write very personal records… It can really fuck you up” he said about writing 13 back in 1999.

The countless layers of organs, loops and distortions, coupled with Albarn’s emotionally raw and powerful lyrics, Graham’s jaw-dropping, mind-blowing guitars, and Orbit’s alien studio tricks, make 13 a much more consistent and cohesive record than any of Blur’s efforts up until this point. Although each song is completely unique and independent, they all fit perfectly in the wider concept of the record, a psychedelic and hungover vibe that is perfectly balanced within its own chaos. It also proves that unlike most bands at the time (and certainly most bands of our time), Blur were more concerned with an “album” than with a “song”, with their entire career rather than radio singles. Recognizing that I do have a soft spot in my heart for melancholy and the heartbroken – and in this particular niche Albarn work certainly takes the crown – 13 is a record that ties together perfectly, which sees Damon’s sorrowful and distinctive voice shining through all of 13’s musical anarchy to take us on a journey through his despair, loneliness and hopelessness. It is a record about the pain of break-up and ultimate acceptance of it, packed with sincerity, guts and honesty, qualities most of its predecessors lacked.