Shelf life

Briefly gone but not forgotten, Blur are back in the public eye with new material and live shows. What’s it all about, ponders Fiona Shepherd.

Blur have ‘been away‘ fora bit, so whatever they come up with. it‘s going to be a ‘comeback’, isn‘t it? That‘s how it works with successful bands. right? They take time away from touring. releasing singles. filling gossip columns and hogging the limelight in general to do the thing that perpetuates their existence write and record new material. with optional ‘getting your shit back together after the insanity’ period -— and it’s automatically assumed that the next bout of activity is a comeback rather than another chapter.

Last year it was Suede‘s turn (new keyboard player and first album to be written by newish guitarist) and also the Manic Street Preachers (first go at being a three-piece). Both bands had plenty at stake and managed to make it look effortless. Before 1997 is even a month old. there‘s a similar return to the fray when Blur release a new single ‘Beetlebum‘ and play Barrowland.

The last time Blur were in your face they were sporting a temporary suffix ‘. . . vs Oasis‘. They were no longerjust a commercially successful, verbally abrasive combo ploughing their happy furrow. They were in one comer of a prize pop fight initiated as a cheeky scam by respective record companies, Food and Creation, when the release dates for their next singles

coincided. The media seized upon the idea and made it into an ongoing music-related debate on a par with the current ‘who‘s your favourite Spice Girl'?‘

Rightly or wrongly, the two bands didn’t let the music do the talking but entered the fray. all tongues lashing and, as has been noted. Blur won the battle but Oasis won the war of the album sales; then thought fit to pillory Blur at the Brit Awards (‘Shitelifel‘ such wit) before moving on to the more commendable pursuit of enveloping the country in their music. Since then most references to Blur tend to revolve around the mean-spirited notion that they are untrendy.

Given all this, even a band as confident as Blur would be hard pushed to deny that the stakes are high. but the quartet have been here before, albeit in a less heightened position.

After a glorious kickstart to their Top 40 career throughout l99l when they were everyonc‘s favourite alternative chart attackers, they reached what many regarded as a sharnbolic nadir in spring 92 when the single ‘Popscene‘ failed to set the charts alight and new kids on the block Suede were on hand to provide a more audacious chart turn. Virtually written off at an all too early stage. Blur‘s reply was simply to knuckle down and release some brilliant pop music. The single ‘For Tomorrow‘ and album Modern Life Is Rubbish and a year later ‘Girls And Boys‘ and Parkh'fe were examples of how to interpret the best of British pop history for a new audience and how to produce a varied work which still had the Blur stamp. The literal term Britpop was coined and Blur swept all before them. Then there was The Great Escape, their last album, thought of by some as a repeat of the ‘Popscene‘ nosedive because it sold a ‘mere‘ million copies compared to the mountainloads shifted by a pesky bunch of lads from Manchester. This in turn led to unsubstantiated rumours last year that Blur were poised to split having grown apart as a band.

Blur: new single, new album, new serious coupons

What does this tell us? Never mind the competition. trust the track record. Blur‘s latest ‘Beetlebum' is an understated moumful number. not the brash sound of a band saying ‘pay attention to us! Again!‘ Damon Albam has compared it to bits of Abbey Road-era Beatles and Krautrockers Can and Faust. It’s as far removed as they could get from the crass ‘Country House‘ while still remaining identifiably Blur.

Speaking in last month‘s NME, Albarn seemed more than happy to draw a line under Britpop. the Essex lad image and blatant knees-up pop (not that there actually was a great deal of that on the often melancholy and definitely intriguing The Great Escape).

Ever the one to accompany a new body of work with a new agenda. he has coined the description ‘English slacker‘ (watch that one become a millstone) to accompany their forthcoming eponymous fifth album and has readily identified the main influences an appreciation of left-of-centre American guitar music replacing previously Anglocentric musical tastes and a life-affirming sojourn in Iceland. Part of new album Blur was recorded there and Albam owns shares in a Reykjavik bar. He has also referred to a quasi-religious ceremony in which he participated (Kula Shaker will be jealous).

Alternative creative outlets have also played their part in reducing the pressure. Drummer Dave Rowntree has indulged his love of flying. bassist Alex James has indulged himself musically in the aestheticalIy-questionable Me Me Me collaboration with Stephen Duffy and guitarist Graham Coxon has just indulged himself. Albam. meanwhile, goes back to his childhood acting roots with a part as a gang member in Antonia Bird‘s new Screen One production Face. starring Robert Carlyle.

Whether all this activity and new-found soul-' searching leads to a strengthened chartlife will be seen in February when Blur is released.

Blur play Barrowland. Thurs 23 Jan.

The List l0-23 Jan 1997 45