366 Songs 105: Under The Westway

There are all manner of reasons why this song shouldn’t work – A piano that sounds like “Let It Be” (or, if you’re me, the opening of “That’s The Way God Planned It” by Billy Preston), lyrics that are too full and shoe-horned into spaces where they don’t quite fit – but this solo, piano-only preview of the already-mythical last Blur song “Under The Westway” sends shivers down my fanboy spine nonetheless. What makes it so thrilling for me is that the melody is so astonishingly pretty, something I don’t tend to think about Blur songs (To be fair, maybe the finished version won’t sound anything like this, the way that “Strange News From Another Star” differs between the keyboard-only version and the full-band version on Blur), and the lyrics are… well, more than I was expecting.

“Under The Westway,” you see, seems at first verse listen, to follow on from “Fool’s Day,” the reunion song the band did in 2010 that’s almost the very definition of “okay, I guess”; what was most disappointing to me about that song were Damon’s lyrics, which were pretty much a shopping list of what he’d been up to that day (“Porridge done/I take my kid to school” goes one particularly memorable couplet), and to begin with “Westway” sounds the same with Damon singing about “It was the bright sky in my city today/Everything was sinking, said snow would come on Sunday.” But, midway through this snippet, it… expands, and becomes something much more beautiful despite the awkwardness of the scanning:

Bring us a day that they switch off the machines
Cause men in yellow jackets putting adverts inside my dreams
A automated song, a whole world gone, fallen under the spell of
The distance between us when we communicate

It’s something akin to the old-man concern of “Out of Time,” but even more melancholic, somehow. Watching a live version from February whets my appetite even more:

I can’t really imagine what the finished song will sound like, but I know that I’m eagerly awaiting the discovery, if only to hear the “Hallelujah!” part at the end properly, and feeling the release that comes with that moment with the clarity and peace of actually knowing what is being said beforehand.

366 Songs 104: Some Glad Morning

This is the song that’s been living in my head for the past few days, the last officially-released Blur song before their reunion in 2010 and – from what I can gather – an unfinished demo from the Think Tank sessions before Graham Coxon left the band in 2002. Beyond the fact that it’s just ridiculously catchy (Seriously, that “Nigh-igh-igh-igh-ightingale” part will stick in your head for a long time if you let it), what really appeals to me about the whole thing is that it sounds so unfinished; it meanders, it feints, it’s mumbly and messy and shambolic, and yet all for the good. There aren’t enough songs like that, that sound like the inside of your head after a particularly busy, particularly successful day. You’re tired and can’t think straight never mind imagine what happens next, but you’re quietly happy, if that makes sense? That’s what this song sounds like, to me.

366 Songs 103: Tender

I have, in the past, described “Tender” as a hug in the shape of a song, and it’s a description I’ll stand behind; there’s something comforting and emotional about this song for me every time I hear it. Everything about it feels… I don’t know, welcome, maybe? It’s not just that I’ve spent so many times listening to it that I know it inside and out (although I have, and I do; even the bit where there’s a really sloppy edit and you can hear the beginnings of the chorus before the guitar solo starts), but the very structure of the song, from the uplifting choir singing “Come on, come on, come on/Get through it” like they want you to succeed to the lovely and fragile backing vocals in the verses as Graham Coxon backs up Damon Albarn in what can only be described as the sweetest way imaginable (Coxon also contributed the “Oh my baby/Oh my baby/Oh why?/Oh my” bit, which I have a love-hate relationship with but make the song what it is, ultimately).

“Tender” is the aftermath of “No Distance Left to Run,” the recovery that follows the heartbreak. “Are you okay?” I once asked a friend who’d had a relationship crash into the rocks in a ridiculously spectacular fashion, and he looked at me and said “No, but I will be.” That’s this song; the hope that things will get better even though they’re terrible right now, set to a musical backing that is ramshackle and lilting (You can easily sing along with the guitar line for this song by going “Do-be-do-be-doo”) and all the more affecting for its lack of polish and sheen.

The end of the song, for years, confused me. I was convinced that Damon was singing “Kill me!” and thought, often, “That’s completely at odds with the rest of the song, it’s so depressing.” Years and years later, watching the Blur: No Distance Left To Run documentary, I realized that he was actually singing “Heal me!” which is, of course, so much more appropriate. That’s what the song is, a plea and a magic spell to heal broken hearts and find something to stop you being alone when faced with the ghosts you love the most. Come on come on come on.

366 Songs 102: No Distance Left To Run

Continuing the recent trend of “songs about the break-up of Damon Albarn and Justine Frischmann,” here’s the ground zero of that particular genre, the song in which Albarn offers up “It’s over/You don’t need to tell me” and the hearts of a million listeners who’ve never met either participant break as a result. Maybe it’s just because I first heard this track when I was going through my own horrible, protracted break-up – 13, the album this song closes, was the soundtrack of a terrible year or so of my life back then – but this song has always seemed devastatingly sad to me. There’s a sparseness, an emptiness to the instrumentation, and the music sprawls downwards prettily as Albarn sings his heart out in such blunt terms that it feels like evesdropping.

There’s such a sense of finality to the song (It finishes, “It’s over/It’s over,” after all) that it seems both fitting and uncomfortable to be placed as the last song (But not the last track; “Optigan 1” follows, an instrumental that floats in and out, dreamlike) on 13; it almost forces the listener to start the album all over again, considering that the song that starts the album comes, theoretically, after this one in terms of chronology and emotion (“Tender,” which is all about getting over a lover and rediscovering faith in love, or at least wanting to). To place “Tender” after this song would’ve made a lie of the title “No Distance Left To Run,” sure, but it would’ve been more honest in the grand scheme of things.

366 Songs 101: All Your Life

If “Beetlebum” hinted at trouble with Justine Frischmann and a break-up with Britpop, its b-side, “All Your Life” cemented both ideas with far less oblique lyrics: “I need someone who loves me/More than you do/Please say that’s not true,” goes the chorus in part, while another part of the song finds Damon Albarn moaning “Oh, England my love/You lost and made me look a fool” (And later, “England my love/You tattooed your past all over me”). After the retreat into analogs, characters and vagueness that Albarn had made over the the last couple of Blur albums, this was surprising stuff, both for its lack of artifice and for its… depressing honesty, perhaps?

Musically, it’s tempting to think of this as the last huzzah for Blur’s Britpop sound; the structure and polish of “All Your Life” owes more to the Modern Life is Rubbish/Parklife/The Great Escape era of the band than what was to follow, which was the given reason for this song not making it onto the Blur album – That always felt like a dodge, though, a way to avoid putting something so naked and vulnerable on something as permanent as an album… It’s a shame, this is probably my favorite Blur b-side, and definitely better than some of the songs that did make it onto the album. There’s something appealing about the tension between the strength and vitality of the music and the beaten-down surrender of the lyrics that I wish the band had found time to explore deeper before 13.

366 Songs 100: Beetlebum

What makes “Beetlebum” work as well as it does is, I think, tension. Britpop, for all of its charms and pluses, didn’t really work on a particularly “tense” structure – it was pretty much on-all-the-time or sad acoustic guitar moping – and, even though Blur were, weirdly, one of the least stereotypically Britpop groups of the time (Yes, they were also one of the most well-known, and one of the groups that launched the whole thing, but go back and listen to Parklife or The Great Escape and you’ll find a wider range of influences and a broader range of output than the genre readily embraced or became known for), there’s still something surprising about the way that this song uses repetition and release. Looking back at it now, knowing that the song is about heroin – and, specifically, Damon Albarn’s experiences with the drug, both personally and through his then-girlfriend Justine Frischmann – it’s easy to see the structure of the song as a recreation of the neediness and grinding mentality of wanting the drug (the verse, with its chug-chug-chug guitar) and the freedom and release of taking the drug (the chorus); if you follow this train of thought through, I guess the vocal-only break of “And when she lets me slip away” could be taken as the literal act of taking the drug, the break between needing and reacting.

(Also: The harmonies in the chorus, absent in the rest of the song, adding to the feeling of… relaxation, calmness, tranquility…)

And at the same time as this musical recreation of the experience, there’s a barely-coded condemnation of what’s going on: “Get nothing done/You beetlebum/Just get numb,” and the final lines of “He’s on/He’s on/He’s on it” as the music becomes overwhelmed with guitar that has always sounded to me like being covered in insects (I have a vivid imagination, what can I say?). This isn’t just a song – although it’s a beautiful, evocative, fragile song, easily the best thing Blur had released up to this point, and a massive step away from the knowing coyness of so much of The Great Escape – but an experience, something that couldn’t fail to provoke reactions in the listener, and impart a little piece of what Albarn was going through into their head.

The song is so… off, even to someone who didn’t know the heroin-based backstory like the me I was when I first heard it, that the feeling of disquiet and melancholy rang through nonetheless. “Nothing is wrong,” Albarn sings, and you just know it’s not true; the fact that he says it anyway, and in such a passive voice, just makes it all the more disturbing and worrying. In many ways, this is pop music as horror show.

The title, it’s said, came from a desire to provoke cultural overlords Oasis with a song that evoked the Beatles in feeling instead of sound, and there’s definitely elements of White Album (and later) Lennon in the DNA here; perhaps tellingly, he too was reportedly on heroin during the recording of things like “Happiness is A Warm Gun” and the songs this most clearly suggests, and perhaps that connection was somewhere in Albarn’s mind at the time, too. But “Beetlebum” was also a strange declaration by Blur that they were changing the rules of their game as Britpop threatened to fall around everyone’s ears. This wasn’t a song created to be chanted by a mass audience, but something else, something more personal. As a teaser for what was to come in the Blur album that followed, it was irresistible.

366 Songs 099: St. Louis

I remember hearing “St. Louis” as a b-side of “Charmless Man,” and being worried that Blur was falling apart. Despite the (somewhat thrilling, trilling) guitar line, this is clearly a song in trouble, with lyrics that literally tell the listener “St. Louis song/Something is wrong” before talking about a man “dreaming himself to Hell” and giving us a chorus that goes “I don’t want to be/I don’t want to be here/Because there’s nothing/Here to be.”

All of this was happening as Oasis had hijacked Britpop’s steering wheel from Blur, and the latter seemed to be becoming at best a national joke and, at worst, something akin to an embarrassment to pop music and national culture in general. The music papers would splash headlines about how the band was fighting, missing scheduled appearances, and generally collapsing into a drug- and drink-soaked mess, and clearly weren’t long for the world, and it had a weird feeling of… glee, almost? Of the need for there to be losers to Oasis’ winners. Clearly, something was about to happen; it’s just that no-one knew what it was going to be.

366 Songs 080: Jubilee

The summer before Britpop was about to take over the world – well, the country and my life at the time, at least – and Parklife was still just a successful album instead of being named as ground zero for any kind of movement. I was still a Blur-skeptic at the time, and it was my older sister who owned the album, even if I’d steal it from her and listen to certain tracks over and over again, with this being one of the ones getting repeat performances. Summer stillness and lack of wind outside, lying on the floor next to the CD player, closing my eyes and thinking about the weirdness of what lay ahead in art school (I’d just finished my first year), the welcome emptiness of the weeks ahead and the sound effects that took over what would’ve otherwise been some kind of instrumental break of this song, I’d try not to wonder if I empathized a little too much with the “He dresses incorrectly/No-one told him how to do it” outsider aspect of the whole thing.

366 Songs 061: Black Book

There’s definitely an argument to be made for “Black Book” being the sound of a band who’ve collectively listened to Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space having a jam session and forgetting to edit it afterwards, but fuck it, I love this song, all almost-nine-minutes of it, even the almost unlistenable middle section where the jam and Damon Albarn’s “Give you my soul, give you my soul” threaten to overwhelm everything around it like a muso black hole. Maybe it’s the way that the organ grounds all of the guitar wankery, perhaps it’s because the memory of Damon’s vocal performance at the start of the song is so strong that his (surprisingly) deep vocals are enough to sustain you until you get to the coda, or it could be the coda itself, Damon and the gospel choir (The London Community Gospel Choir, I think? I may be misremembering) echoing the “give you my soul” chant but transforming it into something far more peaceful, more beautiful – Literally the calm after the storm. After all, think of how the jam section ends, with the guitar looping, fading out, and the organ reasserting control while an acoustic guitar strums quietly in the background.

The song builds, and subsides, which could be part of its charm. It’s a weather system in itself, the rains coming and then leaving, and everything refreshed afterwards. “Black Book” is a wonderfully cathartic song, if you’re willing to let it be so.

366 Songs 060: Far Out

There’s something charmingly whimsical about “Far Out,” as it appears on Parklife, Blur’s 1994 album that changed everything for the band and British music at the time. Unlike the singles from the album – “Girls and Boys,” say, or “End of A Century” – it’s much less self-assured, starting with the echoey fingerpicked acoustic guitar, before the organ comes in and settles into a fairground ride waltz and the song begins properly. It’s very tentative, very awkward in a winning way, weirdly in tune with the nerdiness of the lyrics, which basically consists of tracing the stars in the sky above us, before reaching the sun and… well, kind of burning out, in its own way.

What’s interesting, though, is hearing the original version of the song (Finally released, in only slightly altered form, as a DVD-extra track on a 1999 single, “No Distance Left To Run”) and discovering that the song was originally something faster, noisier and much longer. As much as I love the version on Parklife, I prefer the “original,” which is much more excitable, eager and – and this may be my own personal prejudices coming out here – confident in its nerdiness. It’s not tentative at all; it owns its nerdiness, as the saying goes, and it’s all the more fun for that.