BLUR Parklife (Food)

You might as well resign yourself to buying this album, because unless anything appreciably better turns up within the next six months (contenders: the next R.E.M. album, the second Stone Roses album (yeah, right!)) this is going to scoop every Album Of 1994 award going. Except Kerrang's. Maybe.

No, I never liked Blur either. Damon Albarn's whining voice, the way they sneaked in on the coat tails of Baggy (now there was a trend!) and then unceremoniously claimed to kill it, or the way all the music press fell for their "dramatic reinvention" as social commentators. But against the odds they've gone and produced not only the greatest single of the year in the anti-Club 18-30 plastic pop of "Girls & Boys" but also one of the freshest albums I've heard in this year of disappointments.

"Parklife" is a concept album, but not in the Pink Floyd/Genesis sense: it's more a series of case studies of Londoners and their lifestyles. Thus we get the confused civil servant "Tracy Jacks", the rut-bound couple contemplating the "End Of A Century", Phil Daniels (Jimmy The Mod in "Quadrophenia") narrating the title track's droll monologue, the mercifully brief but uncannily accurate "Bank Holiday", "The Debt Collector" and even weather forecasts in "This Is A Low". In lesser hands it could've been tacky and mawkish, but Blur have an unusual gift of empathy with and affection for the lives they're portraying, added to which they can write the sort of tunes that prove that pop isn't dead, and hopefully never will be - these songs would easily sit next to the best The Who or The Kinks could offer before they started messing around with rock operas and other pompous conceits. Crisply produced by ex-Smiths lackey Stephen Street, "Parklife" is probably the best album about England since that band's "The Queen Is Dead" - yes, it's that good

BLUR The Great Escape (Food)

How to follow up one of the two most successful albums of 1994? Well, you could sack your drummer, mislay your bassist and turn into Status Quo (oops, what a giveaway), or you could concentrate on self-improvement, sharp and witty observation and musical progression. Guess which way Blur went...

"The Great Escape" is an excellent album, a more-than-worthy successor to the glories of "Parklife". If you don’t like it you haven’t played it enough, because it requires serious acclimatisation: the burping, fairground rhythms are more tangled and twisted than on previous outings, like a muso-Madness, and on initial acquaintance they sound more overwhelming than impressive - persist and they become clever rather than just clever-clever. Damon Albarn’s lyrics are as pointed as ever; littered with far too many quotable quotes, they seem concerned predominately with the reflected glory of a nation gripped by lottery fever and the aftermath of 80’s-style capitalism, synthesised into a kind of shiny happy future-for-all, whether it’s in "Yuko And Hiro"’s dedication to the company or current single "The Universal". "Entertain Me" is a curious minor-key rewrite of "Girls And Boys" for the blank generation, "Charmless Man" has to be a sideswipe at the fallen Morrissey and "Country House" and "Globe Alone" seek and destroy the last two yuppies in town.

Being picky, opening track "Stereotypes" is inessential in the extreme, a bawdy blunder through Pulp territory, leering and sneering at life behind the net curtains, and you could complain that Albarn’s lyrics are solely accusatory, too concerned with taking pot-shots at easy targets. His habit for building in buzzwords means "The Great Escape" won’t date well, with all its references to karaoke and Prozac, and there’s nothing quite as heart-warmingly wonderful as "To The End" or "This Is A Low". Despite all that, Blur’s fourth album is the sound of a band revelling in the kaleidoscopic possibilities of popular culture, and one of 1995’s best.

BLUR G-Mex Centre, Manchester, 30/11/95

Three months is a long time in the world of popular song: when I went to this gig "The Great Escape" was set to clean up in the end of year polls, the Oasis album was a tired-looking collection of Gary Glitter and Beatles rip-offs and Blur’s continued success was a certainty. These days you can’t even give away copies of the latest Blur single, and, due to possessing by the crateload the indefinable qualities that make an album a ‘grower’, "(What’s The Story) Morning Glory" is going to be number one everywhere forever.

Still, try telling that to a railway-shedful of screaming teens. They were being carried off for medical attention even during the support act, an eight-piece lounge combo playing easy listening versions of popular indie tunes by Elastica, New Order and the like (this was about a fortnight before the Mike Flowers Pops phenomenon, remember).

To the strains of "Colonel Bogey" the backdrop parts to reveal...a stage set! -(It must be over ten years since I went to a gig that had one of those!) - decorated with huge floating hamburgers and London buses, a mock up of St Paul’s Cathedral, a fairground, the "Zeal Zone" - a real slab of mockernee Cockernee glamour in the middle of dour grumpy old Manchester, which is impressed, to put it mildly. They launch into "Charmless Man", one of the boppy, shouty ones from "The Great Escape", whose mildly disorientating melodic twists get soundly stomped upon in an attempt to fill the cavernous (and sold out, natch) venue. In similar vein we get "Tracy Jacks", "Stereotypes", "Mr Robinson’s Quango", "It Could Be You", a thrashed up, guitarist-expiring "Globe Alone", "Girls And Boys", "Parklife", "Bank Holiday" (thrash thrash thrashity thrash, unsurprisingly), as well as older, and tonight superior, delights such as "Popscene", "For Tomorrow" (during which Damon disappears into the crowd, forcing the band to ad-lib furiously: when he returns they’re playing "Country House", oblivious to the fact that he’s still singing "For Tomorrow"), "Advert", "Chemical World" and "Coping".

Their gentler, elegiac works lost almost everything live: fabulous though the likes of "To The End" and "This Is A Low" (cue lighters aloft like its a Bryan Adams gig or summat) are they were never meant to be moshed to or screamed at. However, the closing "Universal", played against a backdrop of gigantic tablets, was magnificent, undoubtedly the best song of the night and the only slowie that really worked in such a huge space. Visually stunning, musically alright, at least, I’d like to see Oasis attempt to better this gig - but then again, you can’t even buy Oasis tickets these days.

BLUR Blur (Food)

So what to do when you’ve won the battle (let’s face it, in the ‘having something to say’ stakes "The Great Escape" was always streets ahead of "(What’s The Story) Morning Glory?") but been fairly convincingly trounced in the Britpop wars? Well, you could always relocate to Iceland, make a houseguest of Stephen Malkmus, the genius behind arch-slackers Pavement, and return with an album of fuzzy, disorientated and disorientating tunes that proudly display their lo-fi grunge influences on their (luxuriously embossed) sleeves. Couldn’t you?

The front cover of "Blur" shows a - searches thesaurus in for an alternative adjective - indistinct Image of what looks like a patient being rushed into casualty on a hospital trolley. A metaphor for Colchester’s finest’s career, perhaps? And would that be before or after the release of this latest offering? Well, the concept of Blur doing a Pavement is just about as ludicrous as U2’s idea of what constitutes an ‘experimental’ album ("Zooropa", in case you’ve managed to blot it out of your mind), especially as Pavement were always criticised for ripping off the early Fall - Damon Albarn doing a Mark E. Smith?!

"Blur" is a vague, fuzzy, heck, blurred album, by anybody’s standards. No longer a slave to the concepts that inspired the ‘Life’ trilogy, Damon indulges in his new lyrical freedom by crafting non-songs such as "I’m Just A Killer For Your Love" (sample lyric: "I’m just a killer for your love/I’m just a killer for your love", repeat ad nauseum) and "Theme From Retro" (sample lyric: can’t tell really, it’s just Damon yelping in a sea of reverb, and tellingly "Blur"’s lyric sheet is conspicuous by its absence). Even the top pop hit "Beetlebum" isn’t much of a song, the definitive ode to nothing in particular, but would you rather whistle this or "Country House"? Case dismissed.

Still, it’s a Blur album, and consequently we are not denied the odd moment of sporadic utter genius, most notably Graham Coxon’s "You’re So Great", a bleary-eyed ode to excess alcohol consumption so totally devoid of lagerlagerlager laddism it really could almost be a Pavement track: except Pavement would never spend so long perfecting the distorted vocals/distorted electric/crystalline acoustic guitar arrangement. "Strange News From Another Star" might sound like a Lush b-side but it’s another excellent semi-acoustic waft of wistfulness. "Look Inside America" has to be a sly dig at a certain popular beat ensemble who’ve come to grief whilst (attempting) to tour the States, with the added bonus of sounding like its fallen off "Modern Life Is Rubbish".

The other eleven tracks though..."M.O.R." is generic poppy Blur-by-numbers, it could be "Charmless Man" with less glasshouse-y lyrics; "Country Sad Ballad Man" might as well be a low-key rewrite of, well, any other Blur song with the word ‘country’ in the title that you might care to think of; "Chinese Bombs" and "Song 2" are pretty much grunge, the former in particular sounding like something from "Bleach" ("I’m getting rid of grunge", said one D Albarn in an NME interview in 1993), "Essex Dogs" is a narrative, ferchrissakes (yes, so was "Parklife", but, crucially, it worked, and didn’t have hoover noises on it).

Maybe it’s these six-week deadlines. Maybe "Blur" is a work of lo-fi, anti-pop genius. Perhaps given a few more plays... But in the Blur vs Pavement stakes, I don’t even need to hear the new Pavement album (see the next issue for a review if The Rock Box comes good in time) to declare the winner on that score: Damon’s mewl vs Malkmus’ drawl; Blur’s self-consciously bashed-out and slapped-down new artlessness vs Pavement’s telepathic knack of writing and playing songs that sound comfortable, even graceful with their lack of momentum (compare "Beetlebum" with "Silence Kit", the opening cut on Pavement’s fabulous 1994 outing "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" to see exactly how wrong Blur get it) - there’ll only ever be one choice. More important to the kids, where’s the Blur vs Oasis tussle at now? Well, for its many faults, and tacky as it may appease compared to the genuine article, "Blur" is undeniably different from its predecessors. Early reports on "Be Here Now" from its creators suggest another stodgy serving of Noelrock, a popular commercial if not artistic flavour...and at least Damon can sleep at night without having Ocean Colour Scene on his conscience.

BLUR 13 (Food)

The genesis of Blur’s sixth album is almost too well known to talk about, but in essence it concerns itself with dissecting the remains of Damon’s relationship with Justine, as realised in London and Iceland by the terminally hip production talent of William Orbit, recently responsible for Madonna’s career-besting "Ray Of Light".

All of which makes "13" a lengthy, self-indulgent, painful and schizophrenic album, even more so than their last eponymous work, wherein they ditched the last vestiges of the trappings of Britpop and mockney and decided that what they really wanted to be was an American lo-fi outfit who sold about six records a year. That plan backfired spectacularly with the #1 and #2 success respectively of "Beetlebum" and "Song 2", the latter becoming responsible for scenes of jumpy, shouty dancefloor fervour unseen since the heyday of "Smells Like Teen Spirit". So, in an act of spiteful revenge, "13" cranks the weirdness up to eleven.

Not that you’d know from much of the first album. "Tender", the first single, is a lengthy, cathartic gospel number – a terrific idea, except Spiritualized got there first – and "Coffee & TV", the next single, is further evidence of Graham Coxon’s excess talent (see his solo album and his contribution to "Blur", "You’re So Great", for further details). Around these are pinned a handful of distorted, punk rawk rants such as "Bugman" and "B.L.U.R.E.M.I" that wouldn’t scare anyone already well versed in the stylistic empiricism of Blur’s last album.

On the second disc things get, well, murkier, Damon succumbing to the sort of art-rock experimental tendencies that are probably inevitable when your dad used to be Soft Machine’s manager, full of tune-free journeys into strangeness such as "Battle" and "Trailerpark" – a track originally destined for the "South Park – Chef Aid" album but presumably politely refused admittance, it contains the wry line "I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones". It’s not an entire calamity, though, as "No Distance Left To Run" returns to "Tender" territory in a less anthemic fashion: a quiet and quite affecting autopsy on the whole Damon ‘n’ Justine thing, it’s one of the surprise highlights of an album that’s otherwise pretty heavy going.

Let’s be honest though, Blur never really needed to pursue this artistic detour (blind alley?). By now they could’ve given us another two albums of cheerful Cockney vignettes and nobody outside the music press would have minded. The chances of, for example, Oasis ever making an album this experimental and downright strange seem diminishingly small. So it almost seems hypocritical to criticise "13" on the grounds that it’s full of self-indulgent experimentation that rarely if ever pays off, because what other band in their position would even have the gall to try? Even so, you can’t survive on artistic integrity alone, and the fact remains that, a handful of bright moments notwithstanding, "13" sounds distinctly unlucky.

BLUR Newport Centre, 4 December 1999

This was the opening date of Blur's so-called "Singles Night" tour, in which they play all 21 of their singles in chronological order, the kind of shock-free setlist possibly not witnessed in rock since Hüsker Dü took to touring the entirety of their mammoth "Warehouse: Songs And Stories" opus around America in 1987. And if you think the certainty of what you'll be hearing next is a small sacrifice for an evening's worth of 90s pop nuggets, the reality was a little more prosaic. Yes, they did exactly what it said on the tin, but there was something lacking: some vital element became misplaced somewhere between the band's bash-it-out delivery that rendered the keyboard and brass section contributions inaudibly irrelevant and the admittedly enthusiastic audience's too-brief applause after every song, impatiently urging the band through their chronology.

So the night's surprises were depressingly few: the opening song went unrecognised by both me and "The Great Rock Discography"; "She's So High" grew the sort of Mogwai-esque post-rock guitar solo that would have been inconceivable in the baggied-up early 90s, perhaps to appease guitarist Graham's left-field tendencies that have wandered unchecked throughout the band's last two long players; dreading the impending performance of the eternally crowd-pleasing "Country House" Damon pleaded "We hope you understand it was a very difficult time for us; we're just about able to deal with it now"; the mumbled "Good night" as they charged off stage after laying "Charmless Man" to rest which fooled no one.

Something about tonight's performance didn't gel: it was almost like watching a documentary or visiting an exhibition about Blur (two other endeavours they've indulged in during this tenth anniversary year) rather than attending a gig. Compared to the genuine warmth and affection that flowed from audience to stage and back during the Gomez performance reviewed above, Blur seemed to put on an efficiently freeze-dried but ultimately undernourished show, which, despite Damon jack-knifing about like a man possessed, never quite overcame the fact that you knew exactly where the next tune was coming from. Maybe some less familiar album tracks would have added a little toughness to the relentless radio friendliness. None of this diminishes the fact that Blur are still a great singles band, but rather suggests that if that were the sum of their achievements they'd be regarded with less affection than they still so obviously are today, even in the jazz odyssey hell of their current 'difficult' years.

BLUR The Best Of (Food)

Following the cripplingly expensive box set that accompanied the band's Singles Night tour last year, now appears a Blur compilation that doesn't require a mortgage to own. Rumour has it that the tracks on "The Best Of" were chosen by polling focus groups of Blur fans, which might (or might not) explain the unimaginative selection that steers clear of both album tracks (the divine "This Is A Low" excepted) and many of the more important moments of Blur history (e.g. the complete absence of the pivotal "Popscene", still to make its debut on album, and the puzzling exclusion of anything from "Modern Life Is Rubbish", still their best album in my humble opinion, save "For Tomorrow").

Gripes and petty whinges out of the way, "The Best Of" still presents 18 tracks, many of which are at the zenith of pop (if not rock) music's achievement over the last decade. The burning brightness of "The Universal", "For Tomorrow" and any of the "Parklife" tracks remains happily undimmed, whilst the cherry pickings of their, er, more experimental years absolve you from having to buy "Blur" or "13" to get to the good (or at least popular) bits. There's one new tune in "Music Is My Radar", which although a) a bit blatantly Talking Heads circa "Little Creatures" and "True Stories" and b) inferior to the London Community Gospel Choir-propped version aired on "Later" recently is still pretty way out for a pop song. And the presence of complete lyrics ("Music Is My Radar" excepted, pettily) allows you to correct all the bellowed misunderstandings and mishearings you might have subjected these songs to whilst bouncing up and down in indie clubs during the last ten years. Ahem. The cover is rather smart too, Julian Opie's pastel portraits arriving sheathed in a plastic sleeve embossed with the Blur logo front and back.

So, you know exactly what to expect, which is almost exactly what you'll get. But, for a haporth of tar, "The Best Of" could have told a far more embracing, complete tale of one of the most important Britpop bands of the last decade.

BLUR Think Tank (Parlophone)

It wasn't a foregone conclusion that Blur's seventh album would be a goody. Its gestation period saw the departure of guitarist Graham Coxon, storming out in a huff in the direction of a lo-fi ghetto of his own design, and Fatboy Slim shipped out to Morocco to lend some production hands. It's something of a minor miracle, then, that "Think Tank" turns out to be their finest hour since "The Great Escape", at least, although given how time has tarnished that album's reputation that might appear to be something of a backhanded compliment.

It helps, of course, that the album begins with arguably two of Blur's greatest songs in years. "Ambulance" suggests the frantic polyrhythms of Talking Heads circa "Remain In Light" slowed down to 16 rpm, over which Albarn half croons, half mumbles loveliness like "I ain't got/Anything to be scared of/I love you/I was born out of love/It's the only way to come into this world". The difference between this album and "13", its largely unlovely predecessor, is neatly encapsulated by their opening tracks: last time around it was all Spiritualized-style space gospel bemoaning the dying ember end of a relationship, a congested, closed-in sound. Here, in the throes of a new love, there's happiness when heart is open.

In that context, it's difficult to discern where "Out Of Time" fits into this bold, brave new picture, wearing lyrics like "Where's the love song to set us free…And you've been so busy lately that you haven't found the time/To open up your mind", but there's a lightness of touch, a deftness to its execution that makes almost the whole Blur back catalogue sound plodding and clunky in comparison. It's an achingly, exquisitely sad song, a triumph even before being compared to their previous efforts in this direction ("No Distance Left To Run", yes?). It would be simplistic, given the title, to suggest that the song invokes the spirit of R.E.M. (especially that of the trio model), but it's certainly the closest Blur have ever sailed to it.

"Crazy Beat" is big and dumb, programmed to appeal to the parts once moved by "Song 2" and prove that they can still 'rock out' despite being down a guitarist. If that's the kind of Blur song you like you'll enjoy this. Order is restored for the moderately titled waking daydream of "Good Song", Damon's voice almost cracking amid the subtlety of it all. The balmy weather continues during the even finer "On The Way To The Club", doe-eyed and droopy but utterly lovely with it, twinkling in a fashion that perhaps no Blur song has before.

"Brothers And Sisters" is an example of new Blur not really working, sounding sloppy and offhand even though I'm reasonably convinced that in reality it's neither of those things. The sticky patch in the centre of the album seeps through "Caravan", almost wonky enough to have fallen off the back of "13", and the distorted retro thrash of "We’ve Got A File On You" (shout title, repeat to fade). "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club" gets slinky and loose-limbed again in a way you might never have expected of Damon prior to his "Mali Music" project, possibly pouring his "Stop The War" stance into lines such as "The road is hot and dusty/The desert needs a beer/But if we go and blow it up then we will disappear". Another apt title, "Sweet Song" is almost Enossified in its glorious melancholy: it might be instructive to note that this is William Orbit's sole production credit on the album.

"Jets" is another unlovely misfire, taking an inordinately long time to inform the patient listener that the titular objects "are like comets at sunset". Closing the album, "Battery In Your Leg" is majestic, beautiful even (and once again, how many Blur songs can you think that about?). Coxon's last hurrah, it adopts the same hushed tone of The Smiths' "I Won't Share You" (which does seem to be springing up all over the place this issue). The finest few minutes of a frequently astonishing album, by the time we reach the final verse Albarn is woozy almost beyond vocabulary, and is it just me being hopelessly optimistic or is there really an air of Big Star's "Third/Sister Lovers" about it? Quite possibly so, although nobody in the room is as frazzled as Mr Chilton sounded way back when.

So, meet the new Blur. Emphatically not the same as the old Blur. They've led us a merry dance before now, but for the first time ever the band's itchy experimental urge has coincided with an often glorious stash of songs, and the effect can be wondrous.

Afel Bocoum Damon Albarn Toumani Diabaté And Friends

Graham Coxon