13 is a one-of-a-kind entry in an already enviable discography, a moody, troubled album with nothing to lose and nothing to prove.
In the late ‘90s, Blur found itself in a strange spot.
They had been around a decade, released five albums and experienced about as much success as a band could possibly experience. Their 1994 album Parklife was a critical and commercial triumph, and their follow-up The Great Escape capitalized even more on the band’s success, yielding some of their most enduringly popular songs, including “Country House,” “Charmless Man” and “The Universal.”
But their self-titled 1997 release Blur was another matter. Embracing their love of American alternative lo-fi (bands like Guided by Voices, Sebadoh and Pavement), the group opted to shift gears, at the same time that they were experiencing inner turmoil. The results were certainly not unsuccessful—despite the circumstances, Blur was also a success, and included songs such as “Beetlebum,” “Song 2” and “On Your Own.” Yet something clearly had changed—Blur was no longer the Britpop band of yore.
That’s where 13 comes in. Recording in the summer and early fall of 1998, the band split their time between Reykjavik and London, as they had on the previous album. But instead of Stephen Street, who had produced four of their previous full-length recordings, the band instead opted for William Orbit, who had produced Beth Orton’s debut a few years prior and was fresh from a lil’ something calledRay of Light. The album was recorded in a more fragmented style than usual, not all the band members attending the same sessions, and the air reportedly hung heavy due to the recent breakup of band leader Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann of the group Elastica (the pair had spent most of the ‘90s together up to that point).
Perhaps looking for distraction, Albarn had begun working with Jamie Hewlett (with whom he would eventually form Gorillaz), and this is arguably reflected in the album’s sound, which is not only different from the more properly Britpop-era Blur, but also from the Blur that won America’s hearts with its more indie/alternative sound on their previous release. Different members of the group wanted different things, musically, and all were getting more erratic.
What results from this is an album that is all over the place, but is also one of the group’s most lasting albums, precisely because it is “challenging.”
Though it starts off with the soulful and romantic “Tender,” it quickly segues into the more abrasive “Bugman,” with its snotty delivery and compressed sound, Orbit’s influence evident in the quasi-jungle feel of the drums and other electronica-influenced production effects. After the marvelous, melancholic “Coffee & TV,” written and sung by guitarist Graham Coxon, the album dips back into a more experimental mood with the desperate-sounding “Swamp Song,” the guitar-centric instrumental “1992” and the punk-inspired “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.,” which, despite its intriguing keyboard outro, is a rare low point in the album. Thankfully, what comes next is the album’s centerpiece, “Battle,” a kind of quasi-math-rock jam, pitting Albarn’s delicate melodies against a battering ram of drum beats and distorted guitar. After the delicate “Mellow Song,” which presages some of Albarn’s solo material, there comes the trip-hop-influenced “Trailerpark,” which is the most Gorillaz-y song on the album and most directly reflects the direction Albarn would take during Blur’s hiatus, as does “Caramel,” with its open-endedness and its subtle world music influences. “Trimm Trabb” returns things to more familiar Blur territory and features some of Coxon’s best, snarliest guitar playing of the album, as does the stunning and justly famous “No Distance Left to Run,” which ranks among one of Albarn’s best set of lyrics (and a song U2 would kill to have written). The album ends with “Optigan 1,” a soft, carnival-like number that provides some brief relief after what has been, at various points, bordering on an overwhelming listen.
Twenty years later, the album is still a bewildering listen, with the band venturing into some of its most cacophonic and alienating material, fanbase be damned. Though the band seems like it must have felt as though it could not settle on a single sound, for the listener, the album is rewarding precisely for its adventurousness and restlessness, for its long stretches that sound like the musical equivalent of a nervous breakdown, yet all within a relatively commercial format.
Of the bands that reached their level of success, Blur is one of the most defiant. 13 is a one-of-a-kind entry in an already enviable discography, a moody, troubled album with nothing to lose and nothing to prove.