What was that band he used to be in again?
One of the most abiding memories of Britpop, more so than Noel quaffing champers with a fresh-faced Tony Blair and more so than Jarvis’ Jacko-baiting at the Brits, is Blur’s performance of ‘Country House’ on Top Of The Pops. They were the victors of this greatest-ever chart battle: Damon Albarn avoiding the grasps of teenage girls, his competitive urges satiated, albeit temporarily; Alex James grinning at the thought of all the, “Oh, what a card you are!” comments his Oasis T-shirt would command that evening; drummer Dave Rowntree, er, drumming, anonymous as ever.
And cowering it the corner of the stage was Graham Coxon, miming along to a contrary, disjointed solo more suited to a Sonic Youth experimental album than this most vulgar of Blur moments, knowing, just knowing, as the other three would years later sheepishly confirm, that all of this was wrong.
No surprise therefore that subsequent Coxo outings, whether with or without his now most-definitely former band, were to veer as far in the direction of the leftfield as the politics of that now most-definitely former drinking buddy of Gallagher Sr would to the right. The ‘Song 2’-heralding ‘Blur’ album was the sound of this shellshocked guitarist forcing his bandmates to flick through his Pavement and Dinosaur Jr records; ‘13’ became Blur’s ‘experimental’ record (and Graham’s last with the band), while his initial solo releases were lo-fi and proof of this recovering alcoholic’s reclusive tendencies.
But then, seemingly in a flash, everything changed. ‘Parklife’ producer Stephen Street was called, wilful obtuseness was ditched in favour of tunes (2004’s ‘Happiness In Magazines’ and specifically ‘Freakin’ Out’) and before you knew it Coxon was onstage with Carl at his Dirty Pretty Things night, inviting Pete to play ‘Time For Heroes’ with him at his own gigs, getting asked to tour with Kaiser Chiefs and being held as a godfather figure for a new generation of DIY kids unimpressed by the cocaine-addled rockstar-isms of the ’90s. These were his people, and if adulation, with which Graham had seemed so uncomfortable in the mid-’90s, was a part of his life again, so also this time were sobriety and – crucially – a sense of affinity.
Not that ‘Love Travels At Illegal Speeds’, Coxon’s sixth solo album is contented. Rather, it’s a very honest record that is, by turns, shy, strident, effervescent, romantic, fun, funny, sad, charming, often upbeat on the surface yet sometimes confused at its heart, and as such is one that perfectly represents its creator. Opener ‘Standing On My Own Again’ is typical, marrying a backdrop of sharp, energetic Jam-esque riffs to couplets like, “The future’s looking black and it’s a sight to see/Just a thousand grey waves crashing over me”. This is, as advertised, an album about love, but one by a now-single 36-year-old ex-pop pin-up that’s full of the same frustration, worries and confusion that defined early Buzzcocks (the most obvious musical touchstone here). ‘Don’t Let Your Man Know’ fantasises about being a bit on the side to some girl on the streets of Camden, ‘What’s He Got?’ gets baffled by inferior men with way-out-of-their-league ladies and ‘Gimme Some Love’, the heaviest moment here, is about exactly what its title implies.
If all this sounds a bit mid-life crisis then… well, it isn’t. The Pete Townshend, in-front-of-the-mirror powerchording is offset by the genuine innocence of a man only just finding his feet in adulthood, more clearly visible in downbeat moments ‘Just A State Of Mind’ and ‘Don’t Believe Anything I Say’: lovely, emotionally open acoustic guitar-as-comfort-blanket confessionals that paint as important a part of this self-portrait as the adolescent pop-punk thrills of the likes of ‘I Can’t Look At Your Skin’. Best of all is the closing, mini-epic ‘See A Better Day’(“I feel like I can fly”), one of Coxon’s finest ever songs, on which Stephen Street’s subtle, Beatles-esque production touches perfectly complement the sense of optimism. It’s a fine end to a fine album that, while not likely to win any prizes for Gorillaz-style innovation, will resonate, both musically and lyrically, with fans young rather than old. It may be Blur’s lead singer’s ‘project’ that’s got the grown-up broadsheet critics gushing and the Grammys rolling in, but it’s their ex-guitarist who still, in the eyes (and hearts) of the kids, is alright. And that, frankly, matters much, much more.