Sweat Out That Angry Bits of Life

“I remember thinking murder in the car.”

For all manner of reasons, I’ve been revisiting a bunch of music from the late 1990s recently, and have zeroed in especially on Blur’s self-titled album from 1997. That was a big year for me, in terms of what I was listening to: the trinity of Super Furry Animals’ Radiator, Primal Scream’s Vanishing Point, and David Holmes’ Let’s Get Killed took me outside of my indie kid/Britpop era and into more interesting areas thanks to my curiosity in hunting down the originators for all three of those albums, each of which wore different (but overlapping) influences on their sleeve. Without those three, my self-mythology goes, I doubt I’d be so eager to find new sounds even today, and to be willing to give almost anything a listen for a few go-rounds before deciding if I’m into it or not.

Looking back now, though, I’m probably shortchanging Blur in that version of the story. Of course, I loved that album — it’s still my favorite Blur album, I think, even now — and I remember getting a copy of it early through a record mart or something similar, someone selling a pre-release review copy for a tenner and me going “I loved ‘Beetlebum,’ and I think Blur’s a great band,” because I was 22 and it was the start of ’97 and of course I did. What I wasn’t ready for was what the album sounded like, all the sonic gruffness and stutters and self-conscious attempts to do something different from the pristine, over-worked Britpop glory of The Great Escape.

It’s still very much a pop album, but one that pulls from a different lineage of pop music than what the band had previously stolen from, even if the hooks remained admirably intact. It was those hooks that brought me into the obsessive re-listens immediately (“Song 2”! “Movin’ On”! “I’m Just A Killer For Your Love,” with that bassline!), but within days, it was the more awkward stuff that I found myself playing over and over again.

For weeks after, I’d find myself walking through Aberdeen streets at night on the way home from being out with friends, or visiting folk, or whatever, listening to “Essex Dogs” on repeat — the sound of this 6+ minute spoken word track with grumbling, discordant guitars squealing as backing feeling just right for the headspace I was in at the time; I was transfixed by the possibilities the song suggested not just as music, but as storytelling and narrative. It felt like there was something more out there to find, if I knew where to look.

I got distracted by other bands, other sounds, other things happening in life before I really had the chance to look; it would be years before I started listening to things like the Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, or even John Cooper Clarke. But I can see a through line there that I hadn’t before, stretching back to Blur. Maybe I should give that album more credit, in retrospect.

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