New album is about to wash away those louts from Manchester
How’s the album going?” is the one question which has been occupying everyone associated with Blur over the past few weeks. But the enquiries aren’t being prompted by Parklife. It’s the brand new Blur album scheduled for release in September which is generating all the interest. dotmusic got to ask the question first hand down at Fulham’s Maison Rouge, Blur’s favourite studio, where work on the eagerly-anticipated fourth album was nearing completion. “We’ve done 18 tracks, mixed three of them. We hope to be finished in the next few weeks,” says the band’s songwriter and frontman Damon Albarn.
“We’ve never taken a break between albums. Two weeks off seems like a long time to us, we just want to get back to work,”he says. Guitarist Graham Coxon agrees, “When we finish one album, we immediately start thinking of the next one.” Although Albarn asserts that, as a band, they never feel as if they’ve achieved much – “Some bands really think they’ve done well, but we’ve never felt like that,” he says – Blur are in a confident frame of mind.
Certainly if you talk to anyone in the Blur/Parlophone/Food camps they’ll tell you the band’s fourth album is a gem, their most mature work, and their best to date. Food boss Andy Ross, admittedly a partial commentator, says, “Every single song is as good as the best one on Parklife. It’s a wealth of riches. Parklife was a fairly British album, but the new stuff is more universal.” Producer Stephen Street, who has worked with the band from the start but on Parklife became “the fifth Blur”, according to Albarn, adds, “It is a step on from Parklife, but it won’t alienate anybody who got into Blur with it. It’s a bit darker, but I think that was the only way for us to go.”
It’s been a hell of a year for Blur. In the 12 months since the release of Parklife, they’ve gone from being a moderately successful ‘indie’ band to million-selling cultural icons. The album’s title, Parklife, has entered the realms of advertising jargon, while Girls And Boys, the single which finally took the band to the masses, gets an airing any time a TV programme wants to assert its youth appeal.
And, to prove that they’ve become darlings of the nation, the News Of The World’s Sunday magazine is running a ‘story of Blur’ cartoon strip. It wasn’t always thus. When Music Week gave the band-formerly-known-as-Seymour their first review in May 1989, they were just another bunch of confident but unsigned indie hopefuls. They said: “This unsigned and unheard of Colchester band played a blinder which swiftly endeared them to the Dingwalls disaffected. There could well be a gap in the goofy market and Seymour have the charm to fill it.” Within months, they’d signed to Food Records and, deciding that taking the goofy road wasn’t going to take them very far, reinvented themselves as a classy indie-dance group. These were the days of Madchester, and Blur’s 1991 debut, Leisure, catapulted the band into the Top 10.
Modern Life Is Rubbish followed in 1993, producing three Top 30 singles, but nobody really expected Parklife to happen the way it has. Andy Ross, who signed the band to Food Records, says he’s tired of being asked if he expected Parklife to take off, but he answers the question anyway. “The corporate answer is that I wasn’t expecting it, but I’m not surprised,” he says. “But of course I didn’t bloody expect it.” And Parlophone managing director Tony Wadsworth believes the next album should see the band crack the US market.
He says, “They have a very positive attitude about America now. They’ve had some bad experiences in the past, but they’re ready for it now. “We live in hope,” he adds. An exclusive sneak preview of Blur’s newest material reveals that their sound – while still undeniably Blur – has gained a more universal edge. Certainly the Americans will find it easier to swallow than the very English Parklife.
Talking through the album highlights, Albarn says, “We’ve written a song called Universal which is very Burt Bacharach. It’s almost a wall of sound, but not a guitar wall of sound. “The album’s definitely sadder. We’ve got a lot of songs in the vein of [Parklife’s] This Is A Low, which is one of the best things I’ve ever done. But there’s also the punkiest song we’ve ever done, much more punk than Bank Holiday. We felt we’d produced an album of extremes with Parklife, but this is going to have more extremes.”
First blast in the control room was a track with the working title Stereotypes. Albarn says it is “very naughty” with its suburban Sunday Sport theme, but it’s also very cheeky-chappy, forgivable and loveable. “Wife swapping is the future, you know it will suit yer,” sings Albarn over a Parklife-style jaunt. “It’s something people can relate to in a funny way. And the video will be good, it might even allow me to get a skirt on,” he laughs.
Next up is a track which does turn out to be the most punk thing Blur have ever played, but anyone who saw their appearances in their previous incarnation, Seymour, will know there’s always been a punk element to their music. Coxon, a noted ligger about town, says he hasn’t seen many gigs lately, confessing he’s been listening to “a lot of old American hardcore”. And to enforce the point he enthuses about the new Sonic Youth biography, Confusion Is Next, proclaiming its virtues as if it were The Bible.
This explains why the track succeeds as a genuinely heavy punk song, showing American interlopers such as Green Day how it really should be done. But again it still sounds like Blur. According to Street, this is an attribute they share with some of his famous former clients. “The Smiths were one of the few bands who could do any kind of song and still be instantly recognisable, and Blur are the same,” Street says. The band might say there’s no Girls And Boys in the offing, but it sounds like they could have another song of Parklife’s ilk up their sleeves.
One of the album tracks will feature a spoken narrative by “a prominent MP”. Albarn will only reveal that it’s “not a Conservative or Unionist” representative, but it’ll be worth the wait to see which candidate has seriously decided to go for the youth vote. The last song is an unmixed version of a booming slow number. It’s hard to comment on an unmixed track, but it certainly sounds like a bedsit classic in the making and proves Blur’s mastery of the slow, booming epic. But Albarn insists, “I never write unhappy songs, even though they might sound like that. That song is pure Anglo-Saxosensualism.It’s another big thing, it’s not apologetic.” Which sums up Blur entirely.