Friday, January 19, 2007

On Britpop, Blur, and Damon Albarn

In Britain, pop music seems to matter more. That is not to say that Britpop is superior to its American counterpart (though I am a big fan of a lot of Britpop) nor is it to say that there are not passionate and knowledgable American music fans. Of course there are millions of us. But pop music is part of the zeitgeist on the British Isles in a way that it is not in a bigger, more diffuse United States. In the mid-1990s when the Oasis-Blur-Pulp wars were waged, the principals in that battle -- the rowdy and obnoxious Gallagher brothers, the pretty boy Damon Albarn who was part of the epoch's great pop couple, and the chic geek Jarvis Cocker -- seemed to be ubiquitous in both the daily and the weekly music tabloids that are notorious in England.

It is odd to think, given that Oasis appeared to have swept the floor with the competition by 1998 or so, that Albarn may have emerged triumphant from those days, though I doubt he cares. Oasis put out two (or so -- the debate rages on) truly great albums but became something of a caricature of themselves, and in any case by setting up the expectation that they were bigger than the Beatles created the conditions for a fall. When you aim for the heavens and fall short there will be many who enjoy your comedown. Pulp was always a favorite of the cognoscenti, but even in Britain they were the little engine that could, a band big enough to take the piss out of the bigger boys but not big enough to sustain it. That said, "Common People" might be the most quintessentially British song of the era.

Then there was Blur. Popular, not especially threatening, lacking Oasis' bombast and Pulp's wit, Albarn and co. seemed destined for the hall of the very good though not the Hall of Fame. But in recent years Albarn has taken some daring, even brazen, approaches to pop music. He has become the most unlikely hitmaker with a cartoon group (literally) in which he subsumes his personality in anonymity. He lets the cartoon speak for itself, and while the Gorrillaz might never approach true greatness, they are infectious and good and have captured a particular pop mood -- fusing hip hop and dance and rock -- every bit as much as Blur did back in the heyday of the mid-1990s when Britpop seemed destined to save the world, or at least to take some pulses and hand out a few presriptions.

Now along comes Albarn as the frontman of a new supergroup that has released an eponymously titled album. Capturing at least one aspect of today's music ethos (a cumbersome, indeed terribly bad, name) "The Good, the Bad, and the Queen" received a four-star review from Alexis Petridis in today's Guardian. I have not yet heard the album so cannot confirm or deny Petridis' impressions, but if the review is even halfway accurate the Gallagher brothers must be gnashing their eyebrows in a jealous, ale-fueled rage.


montana urban legend said...

Parklife was good fun and I'm not surprised that Albarn has taken his interest in forming supergroups yet another step forward. Leave it to Blur's former frontman to name an album as a sort of play on Ennio Morricone's classic Western soundtrack (assuming that was intentional).

GoodLiberal said...

I don't know, but the whole 'Parklife' 'Mockney' phase really annoyed me. It might be someone to do with people pretending to be from somewhere else and trying to be 'authentic' at the same time. That being said, I really enjoyed grown-up Blur. 'Coffee and TV' for instance is one of my favourite songs of theirs. The Gorillaz are also ace.

dcat said...

I think the "mockney" aspect is one of the reasons Pulp never fully broke in the way that the other two did.
I agree that late-era Blur was fabulous and that I was disappointed early on the see him switch to the Gorrilaz motif, though I now appreciate his ability to transmogrify.