The masterpiece which tore Blur apart turns 20.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
By 1998, Blur were a band of survivors. They’d survived their label forcibly changing their entire identity – Seymour to Blur, Art Punk to Madchester – they’d survived a notoriously hostile American tour undertaken at the height of Grunge, they’d survived massive debt after the commercial failures of their first two albums, they’d survived the One Hit Wonder albatross to score an additional nine Top 10 singles and three straight #1 albums, they’d survived the gaudy excesses of the Britpop scene and a manufactured war with Oasis which saw them being ran out of town and tarred as jokes, they’d survived a hard pivot to American Indie/Lo-Fi despite everyone around them insisting that doing so was career suicide… Any one of these things would have killed a lesser group of musicians, yet Blur not only held it together, they thrived. Their discography has withstood the test of time in stark contrast to almost everyone else associated with the Britpop scene, they took goddamn “Beetlebum” to #1, they finally broke America… Blur were a band of survivors.
Which at least made them a band of something because, by 1998, they were barely a band of brothers anymore. Despite the picture painted by all that success, the constant strife over the past decade of their existence was on the verge of tearing them apart. Graham Coxon was deep into the throes of alcoholism and growing resentful of Damon Albarn for various reasons. Alex James was similarly alcohol-dependent – eventually revealing that he’d gotten to a point where he was drinking “two bottles [of champagne] every day except Wednesday” – and withholding potential songs from the group due to sullenness. Dave Rowntree had switched his crippling alcohol addiction for a crippling cocaine addiction. Most notable, mainly because it was the subject of intense tabloid fodder, Damon’s turbulent relationship with Justine Frischmann of Elastica, a relationship that was extremely dysfunctional and involved a lot of heroin (most famously documented on the aforementioned “Beetlebum”), crashed and burned horrendously just before Blur went back into the studio.
Surprising no one, those sessions were fraught with tension and fights. Regular producer Stephen Street had been unanimously dumped by the group for William Orbit, at the time one of the most in-demand producers in the world thanks to his work on Madonna’s Ray of Light, with the reasoning being that they needed somebody with an outsider’s perspective for what was going to be their most difficult and personal work. Orbit instead got to witness a band mid-implosion: every member took turns missing sessions entirely, Graham and Damon clashed harder than ever on sound – Graham wanted to go punkier, Damon’s palette was becoming more electronic; Orbit deemed the former the winner in terms of sound but the album shows an inarguable stalemate between the band’s two heads – and everyone’s personal demons made them wilfully blind to each other’s pain.
The resultant album, which turns 20 today, was called 13. Why is harder to deduce. Some would say it’s named after the band’s Mayfair studio, 13, but most of the record was recorded in Reykjavik. Others could say that it’s because there are 13 songs except that, despite what the official track listing says, that’s not true since roughly every third listed song has an unlisted and unconnected instrumental ditty stapled onto the end (sometimes two of them). Theories about the band themselves turning 13 are objectively false, they were 11 at the time of 13’s release. Perhaps instead it was named 13 because of the emotional turmoil that abounds throughout the record, a band which until that point had forever spent its days with at least one eyebrow cocked ironically struggling to sincerely bare its soul and wrestle with the effects of the mountains of their time as a band. 13 is a deliberately difficult record. It is overlong clocking in at 67 minutes (their longest album by far), it is extremely insular with many songs at first glance lacking tunes or direct lyrics, it defiantly rejects the Pop hooks that Blur used to give out like Halloween candy almost entirely – one of the album’s three singles was the devastating dirge “No Distance Left to Run” in case you want an idea of just how far EMI had to stretch in order to satisfy that promotional requirement.
Certain critics adored it, many British critics turned up their noses at the “inconsistent and infuriating statement,” but time – even just a few months, NME would eventually rank the album #19 on their Top 50 of 1999 because they have always been super-fickle – has been extremely kind to 13 and it is now rightly seen as the band’s second masterpiece. It is my favourite Blur album by far.
But admittedly it does take time. 13 has no in, even with the canny decision to open with its three most conventional hits as all three each have something somewhat off about them. “Tender” is a warm and inviting Spiritualised take-off (with a hint of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) with a gospel chorus and devastating Graham Coxon lyric that would become a spiritual mantra at their reunion shows, yet jams on for nearly eight minutes and its repeated assertions that “love’s the greatest thing that we have” soon reveal the song to be a draining and, based on the rest of the album, failing effort to psych oneself up in the face of encroaching depression and a dying relationship. “Coffee & TV” is the closest thing to a Pop song on the album akin to Travis and early Coldplay, yet is interrupted by one of Coxon’s famous anti-solos that Travis definitely wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, has Coxon on lead vocals, and its open cries for help in the face of indifference smart especially hard given what was to come (ditto the single’s all-timer of a video). Breaking those up is “Bugman,” a spiritual sequel to “Suffragette City” much like how Blur’s “M.O.R.” shamelessly bit “Boys Keep Swinging” yet is super-obviously about Damon’s drug dependency and ends with a brief jam – including a phenomenal Alex James bassline who may in fact be the secret best part of this whole album – which could have backed a fight scene from The Matrix.
Those are the accessible songs and 13 only gets more wilfully difficult from there. “Swamp Song” envisions the nightmarish reality of what a Frank Black song might sound like if it was in the middle of a stroke and he actually did the debilitating drugs he was always referencing. “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” revisits “Popscene” but with the playful winking fun of the former replaced by an utterly contemptuous sneer – “Popscene”’s hook is delivered by bright shiny horns, “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.”’s has the demonic offspring of Porky Pig and Daffy Duck squelch it out – as if Blur are daring their label to put out of their misery. “1992” is technically a Leisure-era demo Damon stumbled across during the 13 sessions but the added context of his breakup with Frischmann inescapably colours the narrative and adds extra poignancy to the recurring and incrementally-changing line “you’d love my bed, you took the other instead.”
Then Albarn’s experimental tendencies officially hijack the rest of the record and William Orbit’s production starts being worth every penny. To utilise 2019 parlance, 13’s second half is a mood, abstract and difficult, wallowing in the bleary haze of a depressive who needs to do something yet doesn’t have anything to do and so merely sits staring at walls mentally spiralling in emotional free-fall. “Trailerpark” was originally commissioned for the South Park soundtrack album Chef Aid only to end up here once it was rejected, but its churning Mezzanine Industrial Trip Hop not only presages Albarn’s work on the first Gorillaz, it still finds a way to cryptically circle back to his breakup (“I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones”). “Battle” languorously stretches for upwards of eight minutes with a syncopated drum pattern and twirling synthesisers of strung-out bliss being constantly interrupted by Coxon’s stabbing detuned guitars. “Trimm Trabb” and “Mellow Song” – the former lyrically being one of Albarn’s trademark character sketches, the latter living up to its title – provide welcome brief reprieves from the bleakness, but even they get interrupted by Coxon’s sloppy panning guitar work (the former) or Albarn’s crushing heartbreak (the latter).
But to characterise 13 as an entirely atonal, wilfully-alienating, and miserablist slog of a record would be doing it a major disservice. Almost every single song has a groove or hook which reveals itself at some point or another, the musicianship is impeccable throughout, and even the darkest and most hopeless of tracks feature moments of genuine beauty. Evidence: “Caramel,” the funereal centrepiece which sees Damon sink deeper into his heroin habit in an effort to blot out the breakup and rekindle his genius – he’s on-record as crediting heroin for much of Blur’s biggest tunes whilst disparaging his dependency on it. It’s the heaviest song on the album but it still has Coxon’s screaming two-note guitar hooking the rush of the hit, Albarn’s defeated “ooh”s just before the song breaks down are devastating, and said breakdown comes from Rowntree and James going all Free-Jazz on us, whilst Orbit’s production hauntingly communicates sinking into the pit of that hit and hoping one never comes back. The run from “Caramel” to closer “No Distance Left to Run” is one of my favourite three-song runs in Damon Albarn’s entire stupendous discography, especially climaxing with “No Distance” – Coxon’s guttural guitar, almost like sundown in a Western town, combining with Albarn’s cathartic (albeit still somewhat bitter) acceptance of the relationship’s end making for easily the second-best closer in Blur’s history.
Though it’s only after “No Distance” fades away when 13’s masterpiece status is cemented. Blur, you see, had a habit of not actually ending their albums on the big showstopping climaxes, forever undercutting the beautiful ends with throwaway instrumental nonsense. “Yuko and Hiro” from The Great Escape had the dreaded hidden track bolted on, likewise “Essex Dogs” from Blur, meanwhile “Lot 105” chased down “This is a Low” despite the fact that such a thing should be classified as a hate crime against taste and common sense. 13, then, doesn’t end with “No Distance.” Instead, there’s “Optigan 1…” and for the first time in the band’s history, the addendum works. That faraway Optigan optical organ, whirring away to itself, provides a closing moment of light and hope at the end of an album which can at times feel hopeless. Either as the joy of the world outside piercing through and begging the listener and the band out of the darkness, or the disappearing idealised nostalgia for what’s lost and fuelling the depression finally being consigned to the past allowing everyone to pick themselves up and start again. Blur, after all, were survivors.
But they couldn’t survive 13. The fissures were too deep-seated, their vices too strong, their growing musical differences too cavernous. You can see it in their 1999 arena tour, a gimmick based around playing all of their singles in chronological order, how utterly miserable they were playing all but the latest songs. Damon started up Gorillaz with new flatmate Jamie Hewlett, Graham channelled more and more of his energy into his solo work, and by the time everyone reconvened in late 2001 to record Think Tank it was all over. Graham was ousted, the record (whilst strong) felt more like a Damon Albarn solo project than a true Blur album, and the remaining trio effectively split after that tour: Rowntree to become a politician, James to make cheese, and Albarn to make approximately 6,000,000 side-projects.
Time, however, would eventually heal those wounds and the Blur story for now (thankfully) has a much happier end. Even if it seemed like they wouldn’t survive 13, they managed nonetheless. It took time but they did survive. Blur, after all, were a band of survivors.
Callum Petch won’t kill himself trying to stay in your life.