I have a confession to make. I have never listened to a Blur album in full.
I know. It's a sin, but like the Harry Potter books, every series of The Sopranos and trying oysters, I was safe in the knowledge that they existed and that sooner or later, i'd get around to it. It seems that time has come
Suddenly, I find myself in possession of Blur's '21' boxset - an exhaustive 21-disc collection including every album release and over five and a half hours of previously unreleased material. The boxset is released this week. There has never been a more appropriate time to begin my Blur experience.
Over the next seven days I will be listening to each and every Blur album, plus all associated b-sides and unreleased demos and reviewing the albums with fresh ears, starting today with the band's 1991 debut, Leisure. Check back here all week for updates and new reviews.
Blur 21, disc one and two: Leisure
It is easy to forget how refreshingly unpolished guitar bands once were. In 2012, soaking up the sounds of Two Door Cinema Club or Clock Opera, neither of these Britpop descendants share the rugged, natural band sounds heard immediately from the album's opener, 'She's So High'. Where now bands record tracks with arena performances in mind, resulting in aspirational albums which reach for music heights, here you can all but see the studio, taste the cigarettes and smell the sweat of the recording sessions.
Famously pitted against Oasis in their Britpop heyday, a Stone Roses influence is pparent on swaggering, upbeat anthems such as 'Bang'. The meandering 'Repetition' falls a little flat due to a lack of song structure, and it is left to the album's big hit single 'There's No Other Way' to hint at the future songwriting abilities of the band.
Moments of amazingness are apparent in the likes of 'Fool' and 'Sing', and the likes of 'High Cool' are held together by brilliant guitar riffs. 'Birthday' hints at future epics such as 'The Universal', while 'Wear Me Down' bears early melodic suggestions that the band may one day record 'Coffee & TV'.
Meanwhile, the collection of 16 Leisure-era b-sides throws up a few brilliant gems such as 'I Know' and 'Uncle Love', which better several tracks on the album. However, aside from a few slightly reworked versions of the album's biggest tracks, there's little here to a new listener that truly stands out. There's a reason tracks are made b-sides, after all.
It's hard adjusting ears accustomed to the highly-polished, sparkling indie sounds of the 21st century, and Blur's debut album (and associated b-sides) are far from perfect record. However, the grimy sound of the band's early days is a vintage breath of fresh air and flashes of genius so bright, that in 2012, it feels like the beginning of a brilliant narrative - even if I do know how the story ends.
Blur 21, disc three and four: Modern Life Is Rubbish
The biggest problem with coming to Blur's back catalogue at the tail end of their career is the complete lack of nostalgia progressing through the albums invokes. The only memories I have of Modern Life Is Rubbish is the distinctive train artwork, and seeing it on the shelves of more musically clued-up friends at the time.
However, moving on to Blur's second (and least commercially successful album), and the progress made from deubt album Leisure is huge - and unmistakeable. Out goes the dirty, messy production and in comes a pop shimmer, recognisable in later pop hits. The album lacks a BIG single moment (such as Leisure's 'There's No Other Way), but the songwriting is sharper and the melodies tighter. Modern Life Is Rubbish is the sound of a band taking shape, finding themselves and recording an album with an audience in mind after the success of their debut.
'For Tomorrow' sees the band experiment with strings and melodies - plus mention the Westway for the first time, which was honoured in 2012 on their 'Under The Westway' single. Damon's vocals are more distinctive on this record, his trademark drawl shining on the likes of 'Colin Zeal' and 'Sunday Sunday' - the latter sharing a swagger with the likes of 'Parklife'.
Listening to Modern Life Is Rubbish for for the first time in full in 2012 is a regrettable experience. Regrettable that it has little nostraglic value for me - although experiencing it as a fresh album also has its benefits. An exceptional album, and one rightly considered by many as the band's finest work.
The album's bonus disc opens with the punky single 'Popscene', which serves as a perfect place-holder between Leisure and Modern Life Is Rubbish and a goodbye to the controlled chaos of the band's debut. The extended 'For Tomorrow' is quite spectacular, b-side 'Peach' is a stunning downbeat number with nonsensical lyrics but the irritating 'When The Cows Come Home' is probably the worst track in the 21 boxset so far...
Blur 21, disc five and six: Parklife
Sadly, Blur's Parklife album is probably best known for its irritating title track, a song which would have spelled 'one hit wonder' for any other band. So ignore the Phil Daniels collaboration, and Damon Albarn's occasionally grating vocals - because Parklife houses some of Blur's finest tracks.
Take, for instance 'To The End'. Nestled in the midst of laddish anthems, this string laden ballad proves there is much more to the band's song writing skills and Albarn's vocals, as he eases up on the mockney accent and sings a good old fashioned love song. It's a spine-tinglingly raw and emotional track, and one that sounds much less of its era than say, 'Tracy Jacks' or the brilliantly noisy 'Bank Holiday'.
'Boys And Girls' is perhaps one of the first examples of an indie band 'going electro', and still packs a punch, but for a band known for their indie-disco anthems, it's the slower tracks which stand out here. Along with 'To The End', 'End Of A century', 'Badhead' and 'This Is A Low' are for me, what makes Parklife an exceptional album. It's rare for a band to make such clear and marked progress across three albums, but Blur's growth from their debut Leisure, through Modern Life Is Rubbish to this is unmistakeable.
With so many good songs on the album, it makes sense that the b-sides collection is slightly weaker in comparison, with 'People In Europe' a bizarre companion piece to 'Girls And Boys'. 'Theme From An Imaginary Film' is the strongest track on the bonus CD, a swirling, carnival-themed tune, which could have conceivably been squeezed onto the Parklife album. The Pet Shop Boys remix of 'Girls And Boys' is exceptional too.
The Parklife era was the one that made Blur one of the UK's biggest bands - and deservedly so. I am starting to understand what I missed out on first time around...
Blur 21, disc seven and eight: The Great Escape
Following the spectacular Parklife album, I have to admit, The Great Escape has proven a little bit of a disappointment.
Perhaps it's the strength of the album that preceeded it, the sprawling 15 tracks or the fact that the once glorious 'The Universal' is now associated with a British Gas advert, but this one is my least favourite Blur record of the 21 collection so far.
Of course, there is plenty to love about The Great Escape, not least its lead single 'Country House', which still packs a punch with its blend of bonkers and super-smart songwriting. 'Charmless Man' feels a little like Blur-by-numbers by this point, so it's to 'He Thought Of Cars', which sees Blur at their most melancholic and proves one of the album's standout tracks. 'Ernold Same' sounds like a leftover from the Parklife era while 'Globe Alone' harks back further still, reminiscent of the atmosphere of debut album Leisure with its noisy rock sounds.
Straightforward, gimmick-free tune, 'Entertain Me' is the album's final standout, which thankfully ditches the simple chants which Blur have always favoured (even on their 'The Puritan' single earlier this year) that seem so frequent on this album. The Great Escape has its moments, but they are fewer and far between this time around.
The b-sides collection here is boosted greatly by a number of older tracks - such as as the La Comedie version of 'To The End', here a duet with French singer Francoise Hardy. The bizarre Live It! remix of 'Entertain Me' is an interesting change in pace with some seriously dated (but utterly charming) 90s house production. Meanwhile, live versions of 'Girls & Boys', 'Parklife', 'For Tomorrow' and 'Chemical World' also stand out.
Anyway, onwards and upwards. I have high hopes for the next collection...