Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A rock opera for the 90's - James Kennedy on Blur's The Great Escape

For the twentieth anniversary of Britpop, a series of guest posts looking back at the innovators, the opportunists, the individualists who got caught up in a moment, and how they look the other side of the millennium.

James Kennedy writes in and about the West Midlands, and incredibly well to boot - he blogs at http://jameskennedycentral.wordpress.com/ and you can find him on Twitter at @jameskcentral

He's also been kind enough to write a few reflections on Britpop, of which this revisionist review of Blur's The Great Escape is the second.

The NME gave this album 9/10 – at the end of the review it was said that Blur fans could expect to have a lot to keep them going until the New Year. On buying this, I listened to the album in my new room, filled with posters and cuttings from the NME and Select, and furtive nudes from Loaded of course – a pretty much best of 1995 culture. Autumn was setting in, and the room was lit to the sounds of this album, which would be a far cry from the nice and clean teeth of Supergrass. 

After the Blur v Oasis row, the hangover was setting in. 

From the discordant opening chords of ‘Stereotypes’ and it’s sordid tales of wife swapping in Essex, we are met by the ubiquitous ‘Country House’. With ‘Country House’ comes two motifs that had been heard before in Blur’s ‘Life’ trilogy – seemingly playful and child-like, now signifying an unravelling, a melancholy turning to madness, which is apparent throughout the album. 

On ‘Country House’, a brass refrain makes like a childish playground taunt (look at the video around 3:22 where Albarn does the old thumbs in ears and waggles his fingers). Yet, in another hark about to childhood, the listener can hear the sounds of a fairground in the distance, which remind me of ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ – the childish psychedelia of the fairground, the waltzers and merry-go-rounds. 

The players throughout ‘The Great Escape’ are seen through ever distorted mirrors, sticky smells of candy-floss and fried onions. The next three songs, ‘Charmless Man’ ‘Fade Away’ and ‘TOPMAN’, have their lead characters ruined and in thrall to recreational drugs, failed relationships and rough sex.

The album’s strongest track, for me, Blur’s crowning achievement, ‘The Universal’, possibly offers the only modicum of hope in the album’s hour – however, the song tells the story of a doped, blissed out world. The arrangements are lush – it’s hard to fight back the tears when the song kicks back in.  There is grim irony of this song being used in the British Gas adverts, here, seemingly telling the public to inhale the fumes and relax. 

From the eerily sublime to the downright frightening. If ‘The Great Escape’ ever gets re-written as a Lloyd-Webber/Ben Elton musical, a cavalcade of cross-dressing Tories with satsumas stuffed in orificies dancing in a grotesque burlesque would now appear to flashing lights and honking brass bands. 

‘Mr Robinson’s Quango’ is drugged up, rambunctious and gauche, “He’s gotta hairpiece! He’s got…herpes!” After the song grinds into a filthy, raunchy halt, the fairground ride fades up, morphing into a lurching, grinding nightmare.  

‘He Thought of Cars’ is a narrator’s recounting madness, cars in perpetual gridlock, the sky thick with fumes. At the end, the playground taunts of ‘Country House’ are repeated, though this time in a glassy-eyed monotone. 

The album doesn’t stop there – in fact, a case could be made for a subtler track order and some of the tracks left off completely. ‘It Could Be You’ is a nonsensical piece of light relief  about the National Lottery – again, if The Great Escape was an Elton/Lloyd Webber collaboration, this would come as a macabre ballet after the oppressive bad-trip of the last two songs, the smell of gas and orange peel subsiding into the air conditioning. 

Followed on by the excellent ‘Ernold Same’ – a sad sketch voiced by the Right Honorable Ken Livingstone, narrating the life of a commuter destined to live out his life on repeat until his dying day. Albarn sings the chorus in full Harold Steptoe/Dick van Dyke mode “Nothing…will change…tomorrow-row!” Death’s infinite bliss is ‘The Great Escape’ – the final photo on the CD inlay (a dizzying montage of pie charts and ideal home adverts) shows a body being wheeled to the mortuary. 

If that wasn’t enough, ‘Globe Alone’  and ‘Dan Abnormal’ (‘Jubilee’ off the last album, but now with hairier palms and an unhealthy gun obsession) offer a concerned look at those who society ignore, brains gorged on the emergent lad culture and fast food. Finally, two songs dealing with the pains of  unrequited love of ‘Entertain Me’ and ‘Yuko and Hiro’ – foretelling Blur’s more experimental directions end the album on a despondent note. 

There is no jaunty kiss off as with ‘Commercial Break’ and ‘Lot 105’ – after a repeated minor chord after ‘Yuko and Hiro’ and slow fade out, the refrain from ‘Ernold Same’ is heard again played on an accordion, again fading out. To me, this is a tough ending to a tough album. There is real melancholy in this offering – best heard as a whole from start to finish.

‘The Great Escape’ wasn’t regarded to be 1995’s standout album, the plaudits going to Pulp, Tricky and Black Grape, and Oasis delivered a knockout punch in the Britpop wars with ‘Wonderwall’ and the accompanying ‘What’s the Story, Morning Glory’ selling by the bucketload, 

But Blur’s outing, whilst being a tough album to listen to, is best heard from start to finish – a rock opera for the nineties. 

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