Saturday, February 25, 2012

I want McNormal and Chips or I'll blow you to bits: Give Us It™!

Blur's 1995 album The Great Escape was my favorite album ever for quite some time when I was in high school and early into college, thanks at least in part to my extreme and somewhat inexplicable anglophilia at the time, which has long since faded.  So let's revisit it and see how it holds up, shall we?

And the answer is: quite well, with notable exceptions.  Thematically, the album is basically about Modern Life and the way our particular social milieu influences people and hollows out their lives in ways that they can't understand and probably aren't even aware of.  It may not be Rubbish, exactly, but there's certainly something wrong with it.  This compared to Blur's previous album, Parklife, which is musically similar but lyrically more of a celebration.

Now here's the thing, and it is not an insubstantial thing: when you're doing social commentary of this sort, there's a real danger that, if you're not canny enough, you're going to come across as really, really unpleasantly and quite unprovokedly condescending.  But Blur avoids this pitfall!  Sometimes.  Not always, though.  Best/worst example: one of my favorite songs from the album back in the day was "Fade Away."  It's definitely a well-constructed song with an indelible chorus, but listening to it now, I just want to say, what the fuck, Damon?  What brought this on?  It's a song about a couple who get married and live their lives, but those lives are, like, all empty and and stuff because of…their bourgeois values, I guess?  It's quite hard to say.  "They settled in a brand new town/with people from the same background."  Shocking!  "He noticed he had visible lines/she worried about her behind."  What horrifying superficiality!  Honestly, they were just asking for Lord Albarn to make a song looking down on them!  "Their birth had been the death of them."  Oh…so now it's not even about their values system?  It's just kismet?  In addition to being super-condescending, you're also gonna be super-incoherent?  Hokay.  Seriously, it's amazing to me how my visceral reaction to this song changed when I returned to it.  Yeah, okay, lives of quiet desperation, but is it really necessary to be such a dick about it?

Other songs aren't quite so egregious, but I still don't quite know what to make of them.  Like the opener "Stereotypes."  Seriously, what the fuck message is this song trying to send?  I mean, I still like it, and the opening is still instantly recognizable, but what's the deal?  What "stereotypes" are we talking about here?  Suburbanites are incorrigible horndogs?  You felt it necessary to write a song about this?  It's hard to say for sure what attitude Albarn is really taking, but when he goes "and when their fun is over watch themselves on vi-day-oh" it sounds like he's just drowning in the sheer depravity of the whole thing, which seems ridiculously puritanical.  Or take "Charmless Man."  Not that it was ever a favorite of mine, but now I just don't know.  He's this upper-class toff who "knows his claret from his beaujolais."  Okay, but what makes him "charmless," exactly?  Hard to say, really: apparently, he just lacks that certain je ne sais quoi.  The whole thing strikes me as terribly snobbish for, again, no particular reason that I can see.  I would do a similar analysis of "Ernold Same," but that would be kinda pointless: all lyrical concerns notwithstanding, even dumb, teenage me was cognizant of the theoretical difficulty of writing a compelling song in which the whole point is for the singer to sound as bored as possible.

Let's not get too down on the album, however, because there's still an awful lot to like about it.  For one thing, it includes no less than four really exquisite ballads, "Best Days," "The Universal," "He Thought of Cars," and "Yuko & Hiro."  "He Thought of Cars" in particular has always been a favorite of mine, and it effectively gets across the theme of contemporary isolation in a way that's sad and effective and not at all condescending.  And Albarn can do specific character portraits well: musically, "Country House" isn't really a favorite of mine, but even if the song is typically used as an exemplar of the sort of ur-Blur song, doing exactly what you would have expected them to do, it's not bad, and the "I'm so sad I don't know why" refrain really seems to get at something.  "Mr. Robinson's Quango," in addition to teaching us all a useful Scrabble word, is just fun, an easily-recognizable portrait of a politician corrupt in all the usual ways.  And then there's "Top Man," which may well be my favorite song on the album, a wildly musically creative number about (I guess? It's sort of difficult to say) an over-grown fratboy-type.  Even if I don't exactly know what it means, I still love the "shooting guns on the high…street of love!" refrain.

At the time, I was super-disappointed with Blur's self-titled follow-up to this.  I'd been waiting so long, and then the result was something that sounded absolutely nothing like the britpop stuff I'd come to love?  I mean, I still liked about half the songs, but c'mon, man, what was this?  In retrospect, though, it was probably necessary that they do something different, lest they lapse into the sort of mindless self-parody that the lesser tracks here seem to foreshadow.  I think that musically speaking, this is definitely a superior album to the far-more-acclaimed Parklife.  Looking at the lyrics with a critical eye, though, I'm certainly at least sympathetic to the idea that the previous album, which is much less problematic in that regard, is superior.  Still, The Great Escape remains quite good.  Am I to understand that there's going to be a new album soon, after all this time?  Insanely irrational as this may be, I'm actually kind of curious to hear it.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Taking things from your angle, Damon's snide remarks might have come as a response to people telling him his dissatisfaction stemmed from not living life in the particular ways they did--a sort of rejection of society in the style of Holden Caulfield.

My feeling about the album, as a whole, is it's at least as much to do with Albarn's ennui (and that of his prospective audience) as about his subjects. If there is a coherent philosophy behind the album (and the God I don't believe in knows I wanted there to be one when I was 17), it would be:

There is no path (or no typical path as They might try to sell you early on in life, and certainly no authentic route) which will help you escape your angst for any meaningful length of time. Happiness is beyond our grasp--even when we have it, we do not hold it. This is an unavoidable truth from which we all attempt to escape. Better, perhaps, to acknowledge it, and sing a new blues.

That said, I don't doubt there are many people who are generally happy with their utterly ordinary lives, whatever those may be. So the album is a sort of salve for the rest of us, I guess. This would include most teenagers, the prime consumers of pop.

More, I find the idea of authentic happiness or general authenticity (as most directly called for in 'County House's derision of prozac) to be problematic at best. The idea of a true-self, which is somehow undermined by any number of things (e.g. taking a psychoactive drug aimed at treating a real problem), has always rung hollow for me. I figure there's a reason Shakespeare had Polonius proclaim, "This above all: to thine own self be true".

So, yeah, there are issues with the album's ideas, but I think it charitable to see the songs as couched in the singer's imaging himself in his characters' clothes. Beyond that, I think the album still functions as a relatively fun way to attack (or wallow in) personal doldrums.

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I wouldn't call Parklife a celebration. I think the title track gave it that reputation, and could maybe be viewed in that way. But "Girls And Boys" is vicious and sneering (and could be viewed as even more puritanical than "Stereotypes" in your analysis), much more than even "Smells Like Teen Spirit," while "End Of A Century" and "To The End" are despairing (the latter has that grandiose music, but the lyrics are brutally unglamorous). "Badhead" is about being too depressed to get out of bed, and even freaking "Clover Over Dover" contemplates suicide.

What I can say about Parklife is that it's more compassionate toward its characters, in that at least they're granted the dignity of feeling sad, whereas Ernold Same and Dan Abnormal just get mocked, and in general The Great Escape is a bit more distanced from the people being described. But then, Parklife has "Jubilee," which is a pretty hilarious putdown, while The Great Escape has "Yuko & Hiro."


8:45 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Mmm--fair enough. It's just that somehow the first track I always think of is "London Loves," which is definitely exuberant. And I would argue that "Bank Holiday," edge of desperation notwithstanding, is pretty darned up.

Tavis's point is well-taken too, though; a reading of The Great Escape that doesn't take into account a certain amount of self-loathing on Albarn's part probably can't help but be incomplete ("Dan Abnormal" makes that readily apparent). Either way, not a hugely coherent artistic statement, but if we can even entertain the argument regarding a pop album, it's certainly doing more than most.

9:49 PM  

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