Monday, February 4, 2008

8. Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)

And now we the Britpop.

For my money, Britpop was the most exciting, interesting, and rewarding musical movement of the '90s. My sentiments are not exactly shared by my countrymen, but I suppose there are many sentiments I don't share with my countrymen - the fondness for KFC, for example. Why, then, do I hold such an unusual enthusiasm for a ragtag cluster of Anglocentric louts? A few quick guesses:

1. Britpop is very evocative of a time and a place that is quite different from my own life in California, so it offers me a bit of the thrill of escape.
2. Britpop bands tended to write songs that were a little more theatrical and literary than songs written by American bands, and those are qualities that I really like in music.
3. Britpop bands knew how to make an album flow like a beast.
4. Some Britpop may be dark or angry, but on the whole it is more cheerful and exuberant than American rock, which I often find too macho, aggressive, or straightforward by comparison.

With about five seconds of scrutiny I'm sure I could poke about twenty holes into each of those theories, but nevermind. Ultimately I love Britpop because I Which brings me to Blur and their second album, Modern Life Is Rubbish.

First a little context. Around 1989, a musical style known as "Madchester" rapidly overtook the British charts, led by two bands from Manchester, England: the Stone Roses and the Happy Mondays. To hear Madchester described, it would sound like an incredibly exciting genre. But I have found the actual experience of listening to Madchester slightly disappointing. Although critics have linked Madchester with classic '60s guitar pop, from what I can tell, the two styles have very little in common. Whereas '60s guitar pop is eclectic, punchy, and focused, Madchester is repetitive, lackadaisical, and meandering. Madchester is music that sounds like it is about to get really exciting any second, but never actually does. Every Madchester song employs the same basic beat: a slightly lazy regurgitation of the Doors' "Peace Frog" (also known as the "baggy" beat - ostensibly because the Madchester bands wore baggy clothes, but as far as I can tell, because the music sounds about as relaxed as the trousers). Of course, given that the genre was meant to be danced to, usually while high on ecstacy, I think it's fair to say that I am not its target audience.

That's why I love Blur. Because just as the Madchester scene was in its death throes, Blur showed up to make a mockery of everything. They got pissed before every show and giggled their way off the stage in a drunken haze. They didn't even seem to be trying particularly hard. As far as artistic credibility was concerned, Blur were a joke, shameless imitators, ale-swilling football lads rather than E-dropping ravers. They were to Madchester what the Stone Temple Pilots were to grunge - mainstream gatecrashers who lifted the more superficial aspects of the style for some fast fame and cheap glory. The band gave no indication that it would be good for more than a few catchy singles and a cash-in album (Leisure). The consensus was almost universal: as soon as Blur were in, they were on their way out.

Instead of this being an obstacle, however, the aura of low expectations worked deliciously in Blur's favor. Hell, when you've released a hit album after barely even trying, you'd start to wonder what would happen if you actually put in some effort. With no one in particular watching them, free from any sort of artistic pressure, Blur decided to create an album in a style that would appeal to themselves and themselves alone. Like Ray Davies in his Village Green Preservation Society period, they retreated to their own little Blur world, unconcerned with whether their new music would fit into the contemporary music scene or not. Little did they know that the scene would quickly shift around them.

Modern Life Is Rubbish was initially conceived as the "anti-grunge" album. What really happened is that Blur did a quick tour of the U.S., flopped big time, and decided to act like American rejection didn't matter. Damon Albarn originally planned on titling the album England vs. America, but the powers-that-be at their record label wisely talked him out of it. Rather, the album rips on America by ignoring it. Which is not to say that it's madly in love with some long-lost English past. Modern Life Is Rubbish is a portrait, in snippets, of a people who used to be the center of the world but now find themselves just lonely inhabitants of another island off the coast of Europe. The glorious remnants of the past remain, but the present is dull and the future doesn't look much more promising than the present. This very British take on the American "slacker" ethos was perfectly expressed in Damon Albarn's attempt to defiantly spraypaint "Modern Life Is Rubbish" on the walls of various public lavatories across England.

If Modern Life Is Rubbish is a great album, it is a very low-key great album. I'm actually a bit hesitant to toot its horn, because part of the pleasure of this album is its relative obscurity. Among the albums of Blur, a band that is still known in the United States mostly for "Song 2" (and for being the former band of that Gorillaz guy), it is not that well known. It is not even, from what I understand, that well known in its native UK, where it was only a minor hit upon release. But I think Modern Life Is Rubbish works best on the listener when, as it did when it came out, and as it did when I finally heard it, the album's quality comes as a surprise.

Back in college, when I mentioned to Yoggoth that I was a Blur fan, he replied that he didn't really like them but that he owned Modern Life Is Rubbish, and then he asked me if I wanted to borrow it. That was the most easily answerable question I'd ever been given in my life. I'd already heard Parklife, The Great Escape, and Blur, so I was eager to fill in this missing piece of the puzzle.

The album turned out to be a Blur fan's goldmine (the American version has nineteen tracks - including an extra single and two B-sides!). Maybe none of the songs were that spectacular by themselves, but strung together one after the other they were a kingdom of riches. The tunes sped by like tense, spiky, angular little bullets of melody. A couple of them maybe weren't quite as strong as the rest but even those ones squeaked by on sheer texture and energy. The Jam, Wire, XTC, Madness, and The Smiths were all lurking around in there somewhere, but still Blur managed to sound like Blur, because as retro as their style seemed, their spirit was firmly rooted in the present (England circa 1993) and they brought so much of their own energy to the proceedings. In other words, what the hell was Yoggoth talking about? I offered to buy the CD from him, but I think he still has his copy somewhere.

George Lucas once said that the thing he loves about Japanese cinema is that it just plunges him into a different world without bothering to explain itself. I might say the same about Blur albums. I don't understand half the lyrics on Modern Life Is Rubbish, but instead of this bothering me, it only means that I discover something new with each listen. Assorted images pop out at me every now and then through the pseudo-cockney haze: "The Peeping Thomas has a very nice view/Across the street at the exhibitionist/These townies they never speak to you/Just stick together so they never get lonely"; "Colin Zeal knows the value of mass appeal/He's a pedestrian walker, he's a civil talker/He's an affable man with a plausible plan/Keeps his eye on the news, keeps his future in hand"; "It's six o'clock on the dot and I'm half way home/I feel foul mouthed as I stand and wait for the underground/And a nervous disposition doesn't agree with this/I need something to remind me that there's something else." In fact, I must have listened to this album over a hundred times by now, and yet only this week did I finally notice the touching lyrics Damon Albarn sings over the "la la la"s at the end of "For Tomorrow," the album's hypnotically ambivalent opening track:

Jim stops and gets out the car,
Goes to a house in Emperors Gate,
Through the door and to his room,
Then he puts the TV on,
Turns it off and makes some tea,
Says modern life, well it's rubbish, I'm
Holding on for tomorrow.

Then Susan comes into the room,
She's a naughty girl with a lovely smile
And says take a drive to Primrose Hill
It's windy there and the view's so nice,
London ice can freeze your toes
Like anyone I suppose you're
Holding on for tomorrow.

Coming out as it did on the heels of Madchester and shoegazing, Modern Life Is Rubbish was an album that probably seemed comparatively... unhip. You could not dance to it at a rave. But you could dance to it in your room. And personally, I'd rather do the latter.

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