Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Modern Life is Rubbish by Blur (1993)

In 1993, the Soviet Union had recently fallen, Germany was reunited, economies were booming and Nirvana ruled the charts. Blur made a plain, almost childish statement with the title of their album of that year. It was their second, following hot on the heels of an American tour promoting new single Popscene, although largely designed to recoup losses from mismanagement. Conceived as a reaction to Nirvana and other American bands invading the British radio waves (and indeed Americana itself considering the working title “Blur Vs America”), Modern Life is Rubbish would prove to be hugely influential for British pop in the coming years.

In the recently released documentary “No Distance Left to Run”, which chronicles Blur’s 2009 reunion and their history from their own accounts, bassist Alex James dryly states that Britpop was 100% frontman Damon Albarn’s idea. The germs of the album would come from the miserable time the band had on their US tour, and the pressure they were under, after an underachieving first album, to “make or break” their career. Having previously coasted along with the shoegazing scene, as well as the waning “Madchester” aesthetic, Modern Life is Rubbish saw a new, own musical identity taking shape. Everything on the album breathes “Britishness”, from the music hall quaintness of some tracks, to the pogoing, punky asides and the various supporting instrumentals that could serve as a soundtrack to a seaside resort.

Even the video to "For Tomorrow" exudes Britishness

Standout tracks come thick and fast, beginning with Blur’s best track to date, For Tomorrow. The majesty of the song can be truly appreciated in the “acoustic” form included on its single. The electric guitar and bass are stripped away, highlighting the other elements of the arrangement, from the soaring choir to the modest orchestra. Songs like “Advert” and “Miss America” are direct references to both the title and the playful anti-American sentiment of the album, but it is the varied musical landscape of the entire concept that really drives home its subversive, British qualities. It is littered with character songs that the Kinks and Paul McCartney were so fond of, whether they are being played in their 1960s style, or a more new wave approach indebted to The Clash and The Jam. Even “Chemical World”, a solid single, is drenched in lyrical peculiarities, referring to “townies”, “a cup of sugary tea” and “peeping Thomas”. Another highlight is the lazy, gentle “Blue Jeans”, which is like a prototype for the 1999 single “Coffee and TV”, reflecting on lost youth, the Portobello Road market and love.

Blur would go from strength to strength, following up Modern Life is Rubbish the following year with their most explicitly Britpop album, Parklife. The Great Escape would contain some strong tracks, but fail to innovate. A left turn came with 1997’s Blur, with more sonic exploration following on 13 and Think Tank. Always underpinning these albums, and their stronger moments in particular, would be the Britpop template as set out by Modern Life several years before the term was coined and attached to Blur, Oasis, Pulp and anything overly British and alternative in the mid-1990s. By 1997, the bubble had burst and Blur reinvented itself. Oasis would not be so lucky.