Their most ambitious album. Also their best.
No way around this, 13 is a fucking mess. It’s a sad album that wants to lay on its bed and cry in its room instead of going out on a Friday night and when it’s finally goaded into going out by its friends, it dances a little before walking miserably home because there’s no one to dance with. It’s an album that has no idea who it wants to be, so in the state of a major identity crisis, it hangs out with as many people as possible, but never fitting in with any of them. It’s trip-hop, it’s noise, it’s gospel, it’s pop, it’s experimental and at the same time it’s absolutely none of these things. Figure your fucking life out, 13.
1997’s Blur was already an unexpected turn from the band, dipping their big toe into American indie rock, but when you remember that a lot of songs were still, at heart, Britpop, 13 – itself, an almost eponymous album; the ‘13’ on the cover made into the shape of a ‘B,’ for Blur – comes literally out of nowhere. There’s an immediate difference from the tracklisting alone – most of the ones here are above the 5-minute mark such that 13, an album by a band that’s often criticized as a singles band, wasn’t made for singles. “Tender” obviously got picked since it packs Blur’s best melody, but when you release something as slow as “No Distance Left to Run” as a single, you know something’s up. Furthermore, 13 is Blur’s most personal record, but more on that later.
“Tender” opens the album with one of the prettiest riffs Blur has to offer. It’s only made better after the first verse and the refrained “Oh my baby / Oh why? Oh my, “ harmonizes perfectly with it. It’s the first of many tracks on 13 that deal with Albarn’s personal hardships with his recently ended long-term relationship with Justine Frischmann of Elastica. He’s talked about it before, on The Great Escape’s “Yuko and Hiro,” but the difference on 13 is he’s no longer using metaphors. There’s the longing for love in Albarn’s lyrics, “Tender is the touch / Of someone that you love too much” and the repeated couplet at the end of each verse, “Lord I need to find / Someone who can heal my mind.” The glorious gospel chorus, “Come on, come on, come on! Get through it!” is written by and practically written for Albarn, although that’s not to say listeners can’t relate, since most people have been in Albarn’s shoes. Yet by the time 13 closes, you’ll realize that the opener is all false hope, when Albarn completely gives up on “No Distance Left to Run.”
While “Tender” is Albarn’s moment, other big single “Coffee & TV” is Graham Coxon’s. Just as equally as “Tender” was, “Coffee & TV” is a lie. Underneath its pop-sensibilities, its more-jangly-than-anything-you’ve-heard-since-the-80s riffs and singable chorus, it’s a clear confession from Coxon’s struggle with alcoholism, “Til the words start slurring / And you can’t find the door,” as well with his struggle with the rest of the band that’ll eventually lead them to part ways by 2003’s Think Tank, ”You’re empty / Holding out your heart / To people who never really / Care how you are.” Yet, just as on “Tender,” there’s a longing for change, “Take me away from this big bad world / And agree to marry me / So we can start over again / Oh, we can start over again.” There are glimpses of “Bugman”-esque noise during the song’s climax and simultaneously, a new melody – a commercial-esque keyboard line – runs parallel. In the liner notes of the career-spanning boxset released in 2012, Dave Rowntree said “Graham used to say that he wanted to make an album that nobody would want to listen to. But you can’t do that in a band with Damon.” With that quotation in mind, I’m guessing the former was Coxon’s touches and the latter was Albarn’s.
Though the the band playing with gospel and jangle pop toolbox is new to them, the ambition that I mentioned is best seen on the second half of the album. If people were surprised that in two years, Albarn would go on to make Gorillaz, it really shouldn’t have been. “Battle” is trip-hop, and I stress the first syllable since the rattling rhythm and slabs of psychedelic noise seem designed to trip people up with only the keyboard line to ground them. But the greater draws are “Caramel” and “Trimm Trabb.” Where “Battle” was essentially one idea throughout, “Caramel” has Albarn stuffing as many ideas he can find into its equally long runtime. And while those songs don’t bother like melody, “Trimm Trabb” remembers to bring one while still sounding experimenting, turning into a noise-drenched rocker halfway through. Even throwaway “Mellow Song” – it’s around here where Albarn starts getting lazy with his titles (Think Tank will have more of these) – is a bipartite affair; an acoustic ballad (with some cool drunken backing vocals worthy of note) suddenly turns into a heavy stomp. Though it’s not successful, the transition is definitely surprising.
I’m not claiming the album is perfect. Though I remember liking “Bugman” the first few times I heard it, I think of it now as little more than a placeholder between the album (/band)’s best songs. The most I can say about “Swamp Song” is that it has a decent riff and it easily beats the Oasis throwaways with the same name that appeared on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? – and that’s the obligatory Oasis putdown in a Blur review so you know where I stand on the debate. The label shoutout “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.” is the obligatory noisy minute-long song (think: “Bank Holiday” on Parklife or “Chinese Bombs” from Blur) with a random coda tacked onto the end to bring it into two-minute territory (“Coffee + TV” opened and closed with them and “Battle” ended with one as well, so I think the band were going for some sort of concept with them). “1992” – a reference to when Albarn began dating Frischmann – is just an excuse for Albarn to drop the couplet, “You’d love my bed / You took the other instead” and multiple times, no less. The rest of the song is a vague melody over a noisy backdrop that’s too noisy to be atmospheric and too atmospheric to be anything else. Not to mention that it doesn’t warrant a 5-minute existence.
But the band returns for one final success. Heartbreak is never as naked as it is than on final single, “No Distance Left to Run,” obvious from the opening line, “It’s over / You don’t have to tell me,” but from there it just gets worse. Albarn’s confessions elsewhere on this album are light in comparison to the heavy-handed “I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life / I’ve got no distance left to run.“ Blur’s best ballad, despite not being equipped with, say, the resonating chorus of “This Is A Low,” but it resonates in other ways. And that’s frankly why I’m giving the album an A-score – this is theheartbreak record. And as per what’s expected of Blur, “Optigan 1” is a short little instrumental closer that only succeeds in partially lifting up spirits after “No Distance Left to Run.” I guess Albarn’s toying with other instruments (“Optigan 1” is played by a – surprise! – optigan) is a precursor to what he does on Think Tank. Sometimes, I think about toying around with the track list so that it opens with “No Distance Left to Run, “ and ends with “Tender.” I’d still have “1992,” where Albarn details running to other places (heroin and alcohol) for love, before “Caramel,” where he makes a conscious decision to quit his bad habits. This way, it’ll have Albarn telling himself at the beginning of the album that it’s over, and then ending it with a strong hope to move on. That would’ve made for a less morose listening experience, I think.
I’d just like to say that two of the best albums in 1999 declare “Love [as] the greatest thing” (the other being The Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin – see “The Spiderbite Song”) and since Justine Frischmann didn’t run back into Albarn’s arms after hearing this, I’m going to say Albarn was better off without her.