Monday, September 1, 2008

5. Blur's The Great Escape (1995)

(Note: I have decided to continue posting the rest of my top ten list on my own, and this way Yoggoth can simply finish his list whenever he is up to it and there will be no pressure from me.)

To understand The Great Escape, one must understand Parklife.

Parklife is generally considered to be Blur's best album. But it's not. It looks like Blur's best album, it smells like Blur's best album, it tastes like Blur's best album, but it's not Blur's best album.

You see, after successfully exploring his new Anglocentric bent on Modern Life Is Rubbish, Damon Albarn began thinking big. "I'll make the perfect panorama of English life as it is lived in the late 20th century!," I can see his pouty lips uttering. Just one problem: this "perfect panorama of English life" had very little to do with him. It was more about an idea than about his actual feelings. I mean, the critics are right. Parklife is terrific. But only to a point. It's tasteful, eclectic, and well-contructed, but there's something about it that strikes me as artificial and forced. And even though the record was a huge success, I think Albarn himself on some level sensed this. As he would say on "Country House," "I'm a professional cynic but my heart's not in it."

Enter The Great Escape. The Great Escape is Parklife Plus Damon Albarn's Actual Emotions. According to various sources, thanks to his newfound stardom, for the first time in his life, Albarn began occasionally experiencing what is known by some people as...depression! Of course, being Damon Albarn, it was more like "depression" in quotation marks, but let the man have his moods OK? His relationship with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann was deteriorating in a sea of endless touring (and endless heroin usage, by her at least). A doctor's prescription of anti-depressants became the inspiration for "The Universal" and creative lines like "He's reading Balzac and knocking back Prozac."

The point is, despite his overflowing self-confidence, at heart Albarn, a child of the bohemian theatre crowd, knew that he would never be satisfied with the life of a shallow celebrity. But by the time of The Great Escape, he could see that he was dangerously close to becoming one. And so the satire he dispenses throughout the album isn't just his attempt to make fun of people, but also his attempt to distance himself from the hideously empty lifestyle that he knew he was this close to embracing.

The charm of the album, of course, is that he never explicitly comes out and says this; it's all implied. If Parklife was Damon Albarn's attempt to conform to an idea in his head, The Great Escape was Albarn realizing that he couldn't stand his own idea at all.

So The Great Escape is the sound a band trying to tear apart its image while still attempting to use it. I can picture Albarn twiddling his fingers, saying, "They want Britpop, hey? I'll give them Britpop!" So they decided to shit on Britpop without telling anybody first. The Great Escape is, in the words a literary critic once used to describe Steinbeck's Cannery Row, "a poison creampuff."

With its spidery guitar lines and comical Casio keyboard licks, the album opener "Stereotypes" doesn't sound like it's departing one iota from the classic Blur sound. Nor do the lyrics initially seem to be much of a departure, as Albarn paints a withering portrait of middle-class adultery:

The suburbs they are gleaming
They're a twinkle in her eye
She's been feeling frisky since her husband said goodbye
She wears a low-cut t-shirt
Runs a little B & B
She's most accomodating when she's in her lingerie
Wife swapping is your future
You know that it would suit ya

Not too much different from the horny pair in "End of a Century," right? It's like, "Come on, we all know these people, let's have a little laugh." But on the chorus the song begins to show its fangs:

Yes, they're Stereotypes
There must be more to life
All your life you're dreaming
And then you stop dreaming

When I first heard the song, I used to hear the line "All your life you're dreaming," and expect the next line to be something like, "And then all your dreams come true," or even something darker like "And then your dreams are dashed," But Albarn doesn't even suggest that level of self-awareness on the part of the couple. Instead they just stop dreaming. "Ground down by the stone," as Roger Waters might say. Unlike the frequently misguided but essentially well-meaning young Londoners on Parklife, the characters on The Great Escape are seriously lost. Albarn's mild bemusement has turned to genuine scorn...and it's liberating!

"Country House," track number two, is another deceptively desperate lament. "Oh, jolly, another goofy music hall shuffle a la Parklife's title track," the casual observer might conclude. But beneath all the pithy couplets and the foot-stomping, marching band-ish fade lies the portrait of a person who is barely making it through the day. Only on the third or fourth listen did I realize the backing vocals were chanting "Blow, blow me out/I am so sad I don't know why." Now this is a pop song!

The albums rolls on to the similarly "seemingly benign yet ultimately bleak" ballad "Best Days," with the soothingly ironic chorus:

Other people wouldn't like to hear you
If you said that
These are the best days
of our lives
And other people'd turn around and laugh at you
If you said that
These are the best days
of our lives

The implication being: if the peak of your life is this depressing, imagine the rest of it, buddy!

The Great Escape is, as far as I'm concerned, the best concept album of the '90s, in that it has a clear concept, every song actually addresses the concept, and every song explores the concept in a fresh and equally interesting manner. It's like fifteen different American Beautys with fifteen different Kevin Spaceys and Annette Benings. Who would've thought that boredom could be this much fun?

The album also gets a lot of mileage out of the juxtaposition between the band's cheerful musical style and the despondency of the characters Albarn chronicles. The sarcasm-fest makes the album's few sincere moments even more glorious, such as the gently orhcestrated "The Universal." The song begins quietly, as if it's floating in space:

This is the next century
Where the Universal's free
You can find it anywhere
Yes, the future's been sold
Every night we're gone
And to karaoke songs
How we like to sing along
Though the words are wrong

Then the orchestra explodes on the chorus:

It really, really, really could happen
Yes, it really, really, really could happen
When the days they seem to fall through you
Well, just let them go

So what is it that "really, really, really could happen"? Happiness? Inner peace? The perfect universe? Take your pick. He goes on:

No-one here is alone
Satellite's in every home
Yes, the Universal's here
Here for everyone
Every paper that you read
Says tomorrow's your lucky day
Well, here's your lucky day

The way he sings "Well, here's you're lucky day," it's like he's throwing these people's complacency back in their faces. "Unless you get off your asses and lead a meaningful life, then you can take your lucky day and shove it!"

Another standout, and one of the only times the band's music is as bleak as the words, is Graham Coxon's spooky echo-laden guitar showcase "He Thought Of Cars," which sounds the great lost track from OK Computer, two years before OK Computer even came out (take that, Radiohead!):

Moscow's still red
The young man's dead
Gone to heaven instead
The evening news
Says he was confused

The motorways will all merge soon
Lottery winner buys the moon
They've come to save us
The space invaders

He thought of cars
And where
Where to drive them
Who to drive them with
There was no-one

Sometimes I wonder why Blur never caught on as well in the States as Oasis and Radiohead did, but sometimes I understand exactly why: their sound simply wasn't as heavy. You could also say that whereas most great rock bands seemingly compose their songs from the boundless ether, with Blur you definitely get the sense that they sat down and constructed their songs and put a lot of conscious effort into it. But they're such great craftsmen and the results are so well-layered that I really don't mind. "He Thought Of Cars," however, is (along with Parklife's "This Is A Low") one of their heaviest and most musically graceful tracks.

It's not a perfect album. Beholden as it was to the CD era, it's at least two songs too long. When first borrowed the album from the library, I taped it onto a 45-minute cassette side, and "Topman," "Mr. Robinson's Quango," and "Dan Abnormal" were the ones to go. "Topman" has grown on me a bit, but I wouldn't say it adds anything essential. "Mr. Robinson's Quango" sounds like a poor man's "Country House" (and I still for the life of me don't know what a quango is). And "Dan Abnormal," although a clever anagram of "Damon Albarn," interrupts the album's closing momentum and might have made a better B-side instead.

But the album is good where it counts: in the first songs and in the last songs. Indeed, the album sprints to the finish line with the last two tracks, where Blur finally hammer the nail into the Britpop coffin. "Entertain Me" is like the evil doppleganger of "Girls and Boys," where the giddiness is replaced by exhaustion:

The weekend is back
But so is he
Head to the floodlights
See the fraternity
They're waiting

I hear them up in the north
Down in the south
All that is spewing
Spewing out of his mouth

The song always makes me think of Jennifer Connelly at the end of Requiem For A Dream, reduced to humping a dildo on a slimy stage as the debauched businessmen cry for more, more, more! I also pick up a faint echo of "Here we are now, entertain us" - or am I crazy?

Then comes the album closer, the electronic ballad "Yuko and Hiro," which apparently takes place in a sterile Japanese office building and is also completely, 100%, just plain weird:

This is my work place
And these are the people
I work with
Yuko and Hiro
We work together

We work for the company
That looks to the future
We work hard to please them
They will protect us

I never see you
We're never together
I'll love you forever

As the synths gurgle and the secretaries chant in Japanese, you can't help but say to yourself, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the sound of Britpop dying."

It was just as well. Once (What's The Story) Morning Glory buried The Great Escape in the dust, Blur licked their wounds, abandoned any pretense of Britpop, and repositioned themselves as just yer average indie-rock band with their 1997 self-titled release (famous for the perennial sports anthem "Song 2"). I think at the time it was the smart move to make, but in retrospect it was also kind of a cop-out. It's like if one of the candidates in a hotly-contested election simply decides to call it quits so that he/she can focus on his/her own personal life. On the one hand, you're thinking, "Good for you, politics is nasty." But on the other wanted to witness a fair fight! Who cares if Damon Albarn finally found his "soul"? You know what I say? I say there was more of his soul in The Great Escape than there ever was in Blur, 13, or (dare I mention it) Think Tank, because The Great Escape is where, if you look closely enough, you can catch him secretly slipping soul into the cracks of a relatively shallow pop movement - and getting away with it.


Herr Zrbo said...

According to Wikipedia Quango is a british acronym meaning "Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization", used to describe a range of organisations to which governments have devolved power.

The term Quango carries with it an implication of poor management and lack of accountability.

Little Earl said...

Ah, terrific, thank you.

yoggoth said...

This is a good review, but you make to much of that 'death of britpop' theme. This album sounds completely within the britpop mold, even if the lyrics are a touch darker (Blur's other lyrics are pretty satirical if I remember correctly). The last britpop album Blur released? Sure. The death of britpop? That requires a hefty dose of critical hindsight, and I'm not sure if it conveys anything essential about the sound of the album.

Another potential improvement - mention of Pavement and/or Stephen Malkmus. In fact, if you had put this record review up with a picture of Malkmus' smiling face I would have laughed for 15 minutes. Heck I'm laughing even thinking about it.

Little Earl said...

Laugh away, my friend, laugh away.

So what am I supposed to convey about the "sound" of the album exactly? It sounds like Blur. There, done. At any rate, "hefty doses of critical hindsight" are what I'm all about!