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Holy Hell! The Great Escape Turns 20!

Holy Hell! The Great Escape Turns 20!

Damon Albarn still reportedly considers The Great Escape one of Blur’s two bad records.

Blur is one of those bands whose every album has its own well-defined identity. Leisure is the boyish, Stone Roses-aping, anthemic debut, Blur is the crossover album brushed with American indie influences that overrode the band’s classic British mode, Parklife is their most definitive work, Britpop’s gold standard, and so on. Unlike many of their Britpop contemporaries (or indeed their American counterparts), Blur was a constantly evolving entity during their first run, both in an artistic and dynamic sense.

But then how do we boil down their 1995 record, The Great Escape? Blur was still working well within the Britpop mode at the time (their adventurous self-titled album wouldn’t hit shelves for another couple years), and the genre was, in fact, at its commercial peak. This is thanks in part to the massively successful Parklife, issued the year previous, and bitter rivals Oasis, who came on the scene with the insanely popular Definitely Maybe in ‘94 and followed-up with another smash, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, in ‘95. But whereas Parklife had the virtue of being mildly conceptual in its criticisms of conservative suburban British culture, thereby granting it an individual personality, The Great Escape was more open-ended and therefore less of a surge forward stylistically for the band. In a career full of groundbreaking records, The Great Escape is one of Blur’s few transitional works without any truly distinctive qualities, or so it might seem.

What immediately stands out when comparing The Great Escape to the rest of Blur’s early catalog is the horn section on many of its songs, adding accents and harmonic richness to the band’s traditional rock lineup. It’s not a massive change on a cursory glance (horns peppered earlier hits like “Parklife” as well), but deeper listening reveals its significance. Songs like “Fade Away” with its syncopated rhythms and prominent horn lines even approach third wave ska— itself only a couple years from peak commerciality—while in more conventional songs like “The Universal,” a somber orchestral ballad, the horns are distant and subdued, merely adding to the overall emotional effect beside a companion string section and vocal choir.

By providing a steady chord progression for the band to follow across the album, the horns allow guitarist Graham Coxon’s focus to be more nebulous throughout the songs. Coxon has space to breathe on horn-heavy songs like “Mr. Robinson’s Quango,” allowing for guitar fills and diversions where he would otherwise have to be tight around the chords. This helped Blur unbalance and restructure their familiar pop format on The Great Escape.

More important than the horns but less instantly recognizable is the band’s new sense of chaos in their songwriting. Album opener “Stereotypes” begins with a heavy guitar riff that continues into its acidic verses, but this rigidity flows unexpectedly into a sunny bridge melody (“All your life, you’re dreaming…”), which then after only two measures devolves back into a booming drum part for another two bars before slipping back into the solid rock anthem it started with. “Stereotypes,” besides kicking off the album with an upbeat pop rock, introduces Blur’s new fragmentary songwriting style, where abridged melodies flip back and forth, lending their plucky pop a nervous sense of urgency. “Country House,” the band’s first UK number one single and second track on the album, further reinforces this approach with infectious verses that cut into a pre-chorus one measure earlier than would be conventional, a maneuver mirrored by the second chorus leading into the bridge, wresting the crucial equilibrium from an otherwise classically structured pop song.

Blur dabbled with this kind of songwriting on Parklife, but on The Great Escape, every song has a truncated section, a melody that careens unfinished into the next or a constantly-in-flux chorus that keeps the rest of the song unstable. Damon Albarn has fittingly criticized the album as “messy,” and while those persistent shifts and changes in melody can be off-putting, it’s that disruptive unconventionality that makes The Great Escape one of Blur’s most unusual and amusing pop albums to listen to.

Regardless, Albarn still reportedly considers it one of the band’s two bad records. It’s unclear if that feeling is truly genuine or more of a reaction to the dynamic of compromise between the direction he wanted to take the band and the direction Coxon had in mind. As time would go on, Albarn would further abandon the classic British pop approach that defined the era and try his luck with electronic, hip-hop and world music; Coxon, meanwhile, would dig deeper into the former. The Great Escape was, for a long time, the last straightforward Blur album—the last time the collaborative nature of the band was balanced more toward the pop spectrum.

It’s worth pointing out that The Great Escape is also one of Blur’s most commercially successful albums. Not only was it their second number one in the UK, but also their first charting album in the US (peaking at a modest 150) and one of only two of their multi-platinum selling records in their home country. Coming off the heels of the critically popular Parklife no doubt boosted the record’s profile at home and abroad, and being released in the heat of Britpop’s celebrity surely aided sales as well. But it’s also a testament to the band’s unique pop charms, on display on this record more than ever before or since. The Great Escape is not Blur’s best or most celebrated album by a significant margin, but it was released at the height of the band’s melodic prowess, just before Albarn and Coxon’s collaborative dynamic began to divide and take a turn toward the more outwardly experimental. It’s with that context that The Great Escape should be enjoyed today. When you could just as easily listen to Parklife, Blur or the band’s 2015 comeback The Magic Whip, The Great Escape still offers the most durable kind of joyous pop freedom that made Blur such a phenomenon in the first place.

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