In recent years Blur have managed to achieve the dream of many a long-gone 90s band - headlining Glastonbury, hosting their own Hyde Park shows, picking up a Lifetime Achievement Brit Award (pissing of Adele in the process), launching a massive career-spanning box set, and even being picked to close the London Olympic Games with another headline slot at Hyde park - and all of this, without any new material.
Well, almost none. In 2010, Blur put out a limited release of new track ‘Fool’s Day’ for the annual national actual-physical-recording-supporting event Record Store Day. The track was an OK return, some wishy washy lyrics and a basic format - it was greatly read as ‘not a proper release’ but instead a studio reunion excericise to stretch the old collaboratory muscles between the long-separated band. All evidence on setlist.fm (great setlist database site) suggests that the song was never even played live.
But last night, Blur fans were treated well to a comparative feast of proper Blur material - two new songs, ‘Under the Westway’ and ‘The Puritan’, both of which Albarn has written with the overt intention of playing them at their big Olympic show, raising the game from the never-played-live ‘Fool’s Day’. The debut of the tracks through an online Twitter video stream, including a live Q&A with the band, was a hugely successful publicity stunt, garnering attention from pretty much all sectors of the press including tabloids, regional radio and a string of online interviews.
Through Facebook and Twitter, the band teased at the tracks through a series of accompanying images (which would later prove to be stills from the post-stream lyric videos) and images of the band setting up their gear on a roof in London. The hype was huge, and Blur (or their PR people?) have presented themselves as masterful users of social media, unexpected from a reformed 90s act.
But after all the anticipation and hype, were the tracks any good? Let’s See…
Under the Westway
At 6:15 promptly, the middle-aged foursome began the live stream of this track, previously teased in a strip-down two-man performance at a War Child benefit concert.
Now, we’ve all got our favourite stretches of road, I particularly enjoy a flutter in my stomach every time I cross the Surrey-Hampshire border on the M3 - there’s a very homely feeling about it, whichever way I’m going. Musically embracing an inspiring stretch of road in the title of this track, Mr Albarn is referencing an elevated dual carriageway in London, and not for the first time. Or the second. The road has become a repeated reference in Blur songs, first Albarn’s down-heartened city boy protagonist was ‘lost on the Westway’ in second album opener ‘For Tomorrow’, then the Westway was ‘flying by’ in the background as Albarn made his way to the studio to embrace ‘a love of all sweet music’ in ‘Fool’s Day’, and now Albarn has committed a whole song to stories and memories of the bridge.
And what a beautiful song it is, from the opening chimes of bells, through melancholy verse lyrics (‘grey is the day, they switch of the machines’), ripping interlude guitars and a euphoric yet slow-paced finale, allowing drummer Dave Rowtree to showcase both the big chorus cymbals and the slowed down subtleties in his excellent repertoire. In the latter stages of the track, Albarn and Coxon sing in harmony - it’s the moment every Blur fan has been waiting for since ‘13’, and it’s ruddy gorgeous.
The teaser picture (above) suggested that this would be a more classical number to fit in alongside Blur’s now-anthemic lovelorn hymnal ‘Tender’, and this suggestion was completely lived up to through Albarn’s haunting piano and mainly-low vocal range, which was accompanied beautifully by the rest of the band. Any doubters of the band post-‘Fool’s Day’ certainly had their concerns quelled by this anthemic ballad. The subtler parts of the song come into their own in the lyric video, but I’d reccomend watching both:
Live performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHiK0MtbBiQ
Lyric video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5DlAZoEsfo&feature=related
Pictures courtesy of The Sun website and Blur Facebook page.
Kicking off at 7:15 then, was the second track, ‘The Puritan’. This one had not been sneakily previewed anywhere - a true enigma of a tune.
This intrigue and confusion was hardly dispelled by the song as it presented a complete contrast to ‘… Westway’ and to much of the Blur back catalogue. The song kicked off with a backing track playing a quick jaunty piano chords as Rowntree held a quick almost-electro-sounding beat and Albarn played quite quietly on an electro-acoustic. My first impression, and presumably a lot of other fans, as Coxon and Alex James stood around waiting for their bits was ‘well, this is weird’.
As Albarn kicked in with the opening lyrics of ‘Well, are we institutionalised, by the demands of today? In our regalia, are we OK?’, little reassurance was restored to the viewer/listener. Surprisingly, given the presumed comparative sobriety of the band these days, Albarn has presented his most cryptic and unclear lyrics since the heroin-infused ‘Beetlebum’.
The track builds as Albarn explains that ‘the ice, and the gold, is just a double code, it’s a paradigm for every little thing that fashion gives you’ and then follows this with a knowing ‘yeah!’ as the whole band are allowed to go a bit bezerk in the interlude, Coxon relishing the opportunity for some smashing guitar licks as James is allowed to explore a bassline for the first time in the song, finding a smooth, almost-jazzy flow, before the action halts for Albarn to continue his poetic yet confusing musings. Albarn now discusses a ‘happy sad melody’, the second reference to a ‘blade’, rhymed cunningly with ‘parade’, before smashing into the rocked-up instrumental section again.
This time the neon simplicity of the teaser photo and the title being a person’s name, made me expect a back-to-basics character tune from Blur - a simple story about a person in the vein of ‘Country House’, ‘Charmless Man’ or, at a push, ‘Stereotypes’. Torwards the end of the track the ‘la la la las’ and shouting of ‘the puritan, what ya gonna do about it?’ does echo this style, but the majority of the electro-synth backing and confusing lyrics offered something completely different - rather than an instantly entertaining tounge-in-cheek story, this instead posed an intriguing listening experience - a challenge to try and decipher the meaning of the song and to embrace the new musical style. Is it a comment about fashion and the media deteriorating human life? Who knows, but that’s my best guess.
All in all, after a few listens it begins to grow on you and the confusion and freshness of it becomes just another string to Blur’s bow - they can do the slow number, they can do the indie sleeper hits, they can do the big anthemic tunes, and now they can do electro/jazz/hip-hop confusers. Again, I’d reccomend listening to them both to make up your mind:
Live performance: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mBiNteteJhs
Lyric Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_zDNv8HTecw
It’s still unclear whether these tracks and shows will lead to a new album but it’s certainly a great start and an effective way of keeping fans happy. For now, let’s just be glad that they’re back making music!