Two-and-a-half minutes into the tenth track on his band's sixth album [B]Damon Albarn[/B] is heard to ponder...
After six or so impressively edgy minutes, it drifts to a halt. Someone puts on a record of wobbly fairground music. A car starts. Finally, this miasmic trip through a no-longer-so-very-young-man's neuroses ends with a passable stab at some Death In Vegas-style chemical funk. What a mess. Yet, in its sprawling, muddled brilliance, 'Caramel' encapsulates both the very best and worst aspects of the new album by Blur.
'13' is an extension of the atonement process instigated by 1997's 'Blur', every aspect of which, from the title inwards, sought to draw a line beneath its authors' recent past, in particular the grand folly that was 'The Great Escape'. If 'Blur' was a wilful act of rebirth, then '13' is an exercise in enforced musical adolescence, the sound of men attempting to unlearn the techniques that defined their premature maturity. In the process, they've sought to evince the soul their detractors have always doubted Blur possessed.
Thus, '13' is rampantly indulgent, transparently emotional - the well-trumpeted, barely concealed subtext is the demise of Albarn's relationship with Justine Frischmann - and rather self-consciously experimental. At 66 minutes' duration, it is (at least) a quarter-of-an-hour too long. And its vertiginous drops in quality control means '13' is Blur's most inconsistent and infuriating statement thus far.
Infuriating, because divested of four solid-gone clunkers '13' could pass muster as the best of Blur. Opening with the recent single sets an audacious tone. If it initially felt crass, a too-obvious assimilation of Beck's backwoods purity and Spiritualized's 'Come Together', 'Tender' grows in stature with every play. Damon has never sung so well, while Graham Coxon and his dextrous string-manipulation, rather than the gospel choir, bedrocks the song's resolution. It really is a marvel. Moreover, in light of what follows, its devotional flame starts to looks a little forlorn.
After 'MOR''s 'Boys Keep Swinging' cop on the last album, 'Bugman' heralds the return of BlurAsBowie - only this time, there's little semblance of a tune. 'Swamp Song' is pure frumpery, a lurching non-song the like of which Pavement might concoct were they: a) commissioned to compose a Cure pastiche; and b) completely pissed. Mercifully separating the two is 'Coffee & TV', a sweet, Krautrockin' distillation of Coxonlife ("Sociability/Is hard enough for me/Take me away from this big bad world and agree to marry me") that, ironically, given Graham's reputation as Blur's hitherto frustrated avant-garde conscience, is the LP's sole straightforward pop song.
The raw, grinding '1992' is the first track to blatantly address Damon's very public private life, though only the protagonists themselves will understand the full implications of such lines as, "You'd love my bed/You took the other instead", or, "What do you owe me?/The price of your peace of mind...". The song's stinging cacophony gradually renders the specifics inaudible, but the 'message' is plain. Were '13' really Albarn's pre-mid-life-crisis album, we might expect such exercises in bruised wisdom to predominate - and a better record may have emerged. Instead there's the jokey hokum of 'BLUREMI' and the trip-hop debacle 'Trailerpark', where in his worst Am
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