Blur’s 13: “I’m a country boy, I got no soul”

March 1st, 2011 by | Tags: , , ,

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the third, where Graeme McMillan (Techland, Spinoff Online) joins me to talk about Blur’s 13. These are raw track by track opinions, generally written over the course of the song we’re discussing. I’d have embedded music videos so you could listen while you read, but Parlophone doesn’t let you do that. Instead, open youtube in another tab and listen along.

1. “Tender”

David: My first thought was, “Wow, a seven minute introductory song?” For some reason that struck me as an awful idea, like maybe they should have eased into this one or used it as the last song simply due to the length. But no, actually, this is really good. The “oh my baby, oh my baby, oh why, oh my” bit is scary catchy, and the “Tender is the touch of someone that you love too much” is pretty great, emotionally. It’s interesting that the song is essentially two identical halves, and I’m not sure what that means just yet, but as far as a song about wanting to be in love goes, this is pretty great. It’s the kinda song you want to do in Rock Band (I really like going “Oh whyyy… oh myyyy…”)

Graeme: The first single from the album, and one of those songs that just hits you at the right time so that it sounds like a message from some higher power as much as it does just a song. The first time I heard this, I was maybe a week at most after being dumped by a girlfriend of a year or so, on-and-off, and it was as if Damon was singing to me. Because of that, maybe, this always sounds much bigger than it might do to other people, something I can’t just take as a song because it also feels like a hug, or a friend telling you that you’re going to be okay. Come on, come on, come on, get through it.

Random fun fact: This has the worst edit in any modern pop song I can think of. Listen closely at 4:00 and you’ll hear Damon go “Tuh” because they didn’t properly cut out what was, presumably, him doing the final verse before they added in the solo and chorus.

2. “Bugman”

David: Puts me in mind of “White Light” from Demon Days and “Punk” from Gorillaz, but less successful than either. I like when the “na na na na” comes in about 60 seconds in and then the song goes crazy twenty seconds after that, but overall, this is like 75% noise to me. Is this about drug dealers? “I know the nodding dogs,” with doing heroin being “on the nod,” the city being portrayed as dangerous… This song is like two minutes too long, though. There’s this huge outro that I’m not into at all. Neat in theory, ehhh in execution. It’s very Gorillaz in sound, though.

Graeme: This is… fun enough, I guess, but pretty much a muddy mess overall. I think this is a really muddy album in general, in terms of production – It lacks the sharpness and clarity of the Britpoppy stuff, adding more reverb and distortion but forgetting to make anything really stand out. You’re right in saying that it’s two minutes too long – This was the album where, in interviews, they said things like “We’ve learned to keep all the noodling in, instead of just cutting it out,” but for all of that “Yeah, we’re being true to the way we are in the studio” posturing, it misses the point that the songs were better when there was more of an editing process. Maybe that should add to the wallowing aspect of the whole thing, that Damon post-break-up is lazy and messy musically where the rest of us are emotionally?

3. “Coffee & TV”

David: Reminds me of my limited exposure to REM’s catalog for some reason–the soft vocals and twangy guitar put me in mind of “Orange Crush” and “Losing My Religion,” though not for any specific reason or hard connection. Just a weird “Oh, is this like that?” I like it, though. This song feels very conversational, rather than being a tour de force of singing prowess. I really like the way the vocals feel soft, and the drumbeat is good, too. This one is about… being rescued via love? I don’t know. I don’t know about the squeaky guitar solo, either.

Graeme: “Do you feel like a chainstore/Practically floored” is one of my favorite opening lyrics to anything ever, it has to be said. This has very little Damon on it – He didn’t write it (It’s Graham Coxon, who also sings lead – He did “You’re So Great” on “Blur,” as well), and only does chorus lead vocals/background vocals and the keyboard at the end – but it’s one of the most pure moments on the album, for me (This, “Tender,” “Mellow Song” and “No Distance Left To Run” feel like they’ve come from a different album, in terms of sound). Maybe because of the way that Graham sings – quietly, mumbly – it feels really intimate, so I can totally see where you’re getting the conversational thing.

4. “Swamp Song”

David: I like the “I want to be with you” part of the chorus, but overall? Not really digging it.

Graeme: It’s got a great opening riff, and there’s something I kind of like in a “singing along when I hear it, but not listening to it intentionally” way, but yeah; this isn’t really the greatest song. Like “Bugman,” “BLUREMI,” and “Caramel,” it feels more like a half-finished song that should be a B-Side or something, if that makes sense. In particular, this song really, REALLY doesn’t have an ending.

If you’re following lyrical themes through the album, though: “Gimme space brain” harkens back to “Space is the place” at the end of “Bugman,” weirdly enough. Wonder if that means anything?

5. “1992”

David: This is about being dumped and hoping that the dumper feels bad, right? It took a while, but I came around to liking this one. I like the way the song builds and peaks toward the middle with loud noises and uneven volume around the third minute before just completely devolving into something else–a thunderstorm?–and then cutting out a few seconds before the track ends.

Graeme: My Britpop memory is off, but I’d be very surprised if 1992 isn’t the year that Damon met Justine, the girlfriend that most of this album is about. This really reminds me of the shoegazery music that Blur did for the first album, and again, it doesn’t have an ending, it just gets louder and stops, which… doesn’t count.

6. “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.”

David: This sounds almost like it should be the theme song to a sitcom, but I like it a lot. Is this a punk influenced song or is there some history to this sound? I really dig the vocoded/sped up B-L-U-R-E-M-I laid over Albarn’s normal vocals. Wait–is this about history? “Group using a loop of another pop group, completing the cycle, until the teenage maniacs, they bring it all back?” Music moves in cycles, what’s old becomes new, and Blur is on a 70 year old record label… The piano outro is interesting, but I’m not sure what it represents.

Graeme: It’s “Bugman” part two, but with an annoying ducklike vocoder moment! THIS is the one that really sounds like “Punk” to me, if only the annoying “BLUREMI” duck voice wasn’t there. One of the things that this song really underscores for me is how much I like lyrics in this album when I dislike the songs – I really, really like the “group using the loop/of another pop group/completing the cycle” take on pop music that Albarn is showing off here (Also, maybe it’s him getting his head around non-Britpoppy music, in a way, preparing for Gorillaz?), but musically…? This just doesn’t work for me.

7. “Battle”

David: I like it. It sounds like outer space. I didn’t get the lyrics at first because of how he’s pronouncing battle–I hear “Batou,” like the guy from Ghost in the Shell. (I noticed that on “Song 2,” as well. I’ve never heard anyone say “jum-bo jet” like that before.) This one feels really noodley, like they were fooling around in the studio and improving or something. I like when the heavy guitar comes in at around 2:30 and then transforms into another sound in time for the next verse. I like this one a lot, and his singing feels… not quite melancholy, but maybe so. It’s a song for a rainy day, when things aren’t bad, but you just kinda want to relax and re-center. Maybe a little Pink Floyd-y.

Graeme: A song that really, really grew on me, back when I was first listening to the album – I didn’t like it at first, but the more I heard it, the more things jumped out at me… The way the drums just push the whole thing forward (Dave doesn’t get enough credit for his drums in Blur, I don’t think; something like “Song 2” or this is just awesome work), and you’re right, yeah, it sounds very spacey – There’s a great UNKLE remix of this that came out as a B-Side that turns it into a something much sleeker and dancefloory, but there’s really something about the… unpredictability of this version, and the way that it holds together nonetheless, that I have ended up loving a lot. It sounds fucking GREAT on headphones, as well, with all the panning between left and right.

8. “Mellow Song”

David: I like this one a whole lot. Maybe I just like the sad stuff more. It’s clearly about a breakup, and “giving away time to Casio” is brilliant. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite on the album, but I definitely like it a whole lot.

Graeme: God, I love this song so much. I love almost everything about it, especially the lazy, quiet way it starts – the ghostlike keyboards that come in on the second verse, the murmured vocals, the “Is this where I’m going to…? We’ll see… We’ll see. We’ll see” in the chorus. I’m with you on liking the sad songs more – I think almost all of my favorite Albarn songs are the sad ones, he does melancholy really well, I think.

9. “Trailerpark”

David: I don’t much like the “Freestyle! Forty five!” part, but the “I’m a Country boy, I got no Soul” verse (bridge?) is pretty great. This one kind of overstays its welcome, though. There’s this weird piano loop in the background that sounds like Final Fantasy VII music, too, or at least reminds me of it. This, in fact, but less… jubilant. But that rising and falling action–that’s it. That’s what I hear.

Graeme: I’ll give you the “Freestyle – 45!” thing, which just feels like a pose, this inauthentic thing in the middle of a great song that I otherwise love. In a weird way, this song feels like the heart of the album to me, the one place where the honesty and hurt of “Tender” and “No Distance” and “Mellow Song” meets the over-produced weirdness of everything else, and again, it’s all in the vocal and the lyrics – The underperformed way Albarn offers up “I’m a country boy, I got no soul, I don’t sleep at night, the world’s growing old” and the repeated “I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones.” I said in an earlier email my theory that losing his girl to the Rolling Stones is an allusion to Justine (allegedly, seeing as I don’t want to get sued) falling into the rock and roll lifestyle of heroin following the first Elastica album, right? I’ve always thought that since the first time I heard this song, and it makes it so much sadder, somehow, as if Albarn is actually just repeating his flaws and the cliche that he’s lost his girlfriend to without being able to do anything about it.

10. “Caramel”

David: I like this one a lot. Melancholy, quiet, great vocals, great lyrics. I like how it spins up into something almost jazzy and frenetic, too. I think he’s chanting “Love, love… love” about 5:30 in? I’m digging it. Another good Rock Band song. I like that the outro sounds like an old record, but I still don’t get it.

Graeme: The sound of a man trying to pull himself of… what? A bad relationship? MOURNING a bad relationship? “I’ll love you forever…” but who is he saying that to? Another song that’s less a song than an incantation, repetition and rhythmic without falling into the verse-chorus-verse structure, and underscoring the feeling that this album is full of expression, even if it’s this weird stream-of-consciousness expression that could’ve done with some editing.

11. “Trimm Trabb”

David: I’m not sure what “Trimm Trabb” is, but I like how this one sounds. The layered vocals on the chorus are pretty cool, too. Just slightly different enough from each other to sound like a handful of vocalists. There’s a lot of vocals that I can’t quite pick up–the counting in the background, the robot voice–but I still dig this one. Not top 5 on the album, I’d say, but very listenable, even when it breaks down into yelling.

Graeme: Trimm Trabbs are – were? – sneakers. So “I got Trimm Trabb, like the flash boys have” is meant literally as “I have the cool shoes.” (Weird coincidence: “Killing of A Flash Boy” is a popular song by Suede, Blur rivals and the band Justine belonged to when Damon met her). Again, this starts nice and lazily, and builds up – that feels like the structure of a lot of these songs, sonically, or is it just me? – and has a very passive Damon working through his demons: Not only does he say “That’s just the way it is,” but also “I’ll sleep alone” is repeated over and over again.

12. “No Distance Left to Run”

David: The opening guitar makes it feel like a song that wouldn’t be out of place in a Western, though the vocals obviously don’t match. This is a monster break up song, too. It’s fantastic. Probably tops on the album?

Graeme: I’m convinced this album plays in reverse. This is clearly “set” before “Tender” – This is the actual break-up of the relationship that Damon’s recovering from in that song, right? It is completely and utterly heartbreaking, so open and honest and fearless in its emotion – Again, when I first heard this album, I was in the middle of this horrible breakup (that ended up lasting months as we’d continue to hook up and self-destruct and bring out really bad things from each other without meaning to), and so, a lot of what Damon says here was exactly how I was feeling, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. There’s something so amazingly heartbreaking about the “I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel that this life is the life/Who settles down, stays around, spends more time with you” part, especially… The idea of just surrendering to the idea that you are at fault, that the pain is on your shoulders, that you weren’t good enough. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song, and never fails to make me want to cry.

13. “Optigan 1”

David: Weird thought–this feels like an intro, doesn’t it? Like the prelude to the album? I wonder if it and “Tender” were switched in the sequence? Maybe I’m reading too deep/being too picky. This one sounds old, like hand cranked record player old. I like it. Weird placement on the album, I feel, but it also feels very final at the same time.

Graeme: Yeah, it does feel like an intro – and if this album is played in reverse, it WOULD BE (Dun dun dun). But it also feels like a farewell, like something that would be playing in a theater as you’re leaving following a show. It doesn’t feel quite there, either; too quiet, too old, too… not present. The sound of the past, fading out.

It’s funny – Listening to this again to write this, I realized that there’s more to this album that I liked than I’d remembered. I’m still not sure that it comes together or works as an album – It really doesn’t feel like a BLUR album to me, if feels too overproduced, if that makes sense? – but as some kind of side Albarn project, it’s more interesting than I’d thought.

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2 comments to “Blur’s 13: “I’m a country boy, I got no soul””

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