Album Review by Adam Foster
Anyone who has seen their recent live appearances will have realised that Radiohead have two great guitarists – and Thom Yorke isn’t one of them. Similarly, Blur had one great guitarist – and it wasn’t Damon Albarn.
There is a great big, Graham Coxon-sized hole in this album. The decision to open with AMBULANCE – guitar-free, with a hopeful “I ain’t got nothing to be scared of” motif – smacks of REM’s decision to open UP, the first post-Bill Berry album, with the virtually percussionless GREAT OPPORTUNITY. It was not a great opportunity; it was handicap. Likewise, Blur have a great deal to be scared of. After all, Coxon has been almost solely responsible for some of their best recent moments – such as the wonderful COFFEE AND TV from 13 – and has had a major part to play in all their great successes (where would SONG 2 have been without his energetic thrash, for example?).
As a result, this is a difficult record to get to grips with: on many tracks there is a distinct sense of “here’s a bit Graham should do. Any ideas?” The glistering synth break on ON THE WAY TO THE CLUB is one such example; the dreadful, aimless, endless freestyle jazz sax solo on JETS is another (no, boys, no!). But mostly, they are happy to make do with Albarn’s adequate guitar work, and an enhanced role for the supporting cast. A particular beneficiary of this is Alex James, who has never played bass better on a Blur record. He is no longer playing second fiddle, and the range of styles he explores (from Herbie Flowers-like on GOOD SONG to Jean-Jacques Burnel on JETS) is emblematic of the overall experimentation of the album.
Perhaps this is why Blur parted company; Albarn’s insatiable urge to explore new forms, versus Coxon’s increasingly discordant and demanding guitar work. A genius, yes, but sometimes difficult to listen to. Albarn, on the other hand, has an instinct for ear-pleasing tunes and rhythms which does finally work its way through after a number of listens to THINK TANK. Whatever form he plays with – the excellent Alabama 3 stylings of BROTHERS AND SISTERS, the Clash meets Mr Oizo (trust me) feel of GENE BY GENE, the almost Moby-esque quality of SWEET SONG – Albarn finds a gentle hook that keeps coming back to you. If you enjoyed the single OUT OF TIME, you’ll like the album.
And whether by accident or design, the album closes with the one track on which Coxon plays. It’s a track that owes something to This Mortal Coil, and when Coxon’s guitar first swamps Albarn’s lyrics, you think there can only be one winner. But as the imbalanced track wears on, you kind of wish Coxon would give it a rest.
Perhaps the truth is that the relationship had probably gone as far as it could creatively. And perhaps the four-way song-writing credits were not just an ideological ploy; Blur without Graham Coxon can still write good songs. It just might take them a little while to find out how to play them.