Damon Albarn, lead singer and songwriter for England's Blur, is sitting on a London film set, where the video for his band's next single, "Charmless Man" (from last year's album The Great Escape), is being shot. Albarn acknowledges that the clip--which involves "a slightly psychotic twentysomething businessman who's haunted by his conscience, represented by us"--is an elaborate and expensive one; there's even a scene in which the antihero tries to run down Albarn and his mates with a car. But in spite of the music-biz muscle the size of the production symbolizes, Albarn isn't spending his spare moments relaxing in his trailer or enjoying the attentions of production assistants hired specifically to wait on him hand and foot. Rather, he's phoning journalists in the States--and in spite of his reputation for being a prickly interview, he makes an effort to be anything but charmless.
Why? Because even though Blur is one of the biggest bands in Britain, Albarn realizes that only a relative handful of Yanks have so much as heard his name. And he would like that to change.
"We haven't been getting anywhere in America with this record, which is something I'm very used to," he concedes, laughing. "Perhaps one of the reasons is that we've never really dealt with big, general, sweeping statements. We've always had narratives that are quite geographic. Plus, it's taken me quite a long time to get to know America. In the beginning, I didn't have any desire--and I didn't think I had any right--to say anything about it. But now that I've been there seven or eight times, I feel that I'm learning the vocabulary, and I see the very obvious similarities between American culture and my own. I'm only now beginning to find common ground."
At the same time, Albarn and the rest of Blur (guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree) certainly haven't purged themselves of the sounds of swinging London. The Great Escape is strikingly, undeniably British from top to bottom--and while this quality once would have been viewed as a net plus, today's music-industry insiders see it as the primary reason why the colonies have not yet succumbed to Blur-mania. Even complimentary comparisons have been working against the group. For instance, Albarn is frequently likened to Ray Davies, the brilliant tunesmith behind the Kinks--but since the Kinks currently lack a U.S. record label, the analogy has a commercially sour ring to it. "I love Ray Davies," Albarn declares, "but it annoys me that people have used that fact as a sort of excuse for us not doing well in America."
Albarn is equally peeved by the constant need of media types to contrast his band with Oasis, the only other British combo whose level of success in its home country approaches Blur's. When he's told that the January 27 issue of the trade publication Billboard points out that the number 21 ranking of the Oasis single "Wonderwall" puts the group "one up on its crosstown rival, Blur" because Blur's highest-charting U.S. single, "Girls & Boys," peaked at 59, Albarn temporarily allows his sense of decorum to slip and his considerable ego to take control.
"If you want to talk about it, which I don't really, I suppose I can," he fumes. Following a quick composure adjustment, he says, "That's a very broad statement. You see, `Wonderwall' is very bland. It's good, bland music. It's better than Bon Jovi, I suppose, but it's still bland--and that's why it's appealing. It sounds perfectly American FM-radio friendly. It may have come from a British band, but it sounds more American than it does British. That's why I think that if we got that far on the charts, it would be far more of a statement of intent from British bands."
In other words, Albarn believes Blur to be the true standard-bearer of modern-day British pop--a rather highfalutin claim given the band's modest origins. Albarn, 27, first met Coxon in 1980, while both were attending school in a southeast England town called Colchester. Eight years later Albarn and Coxon recruited James and Rowntree for a group they initially called Seymour. In 1990, having rechristened themselves Blur, they signed with the Food Records label.
"There's No Other Way," an early single, became a local hit, but the combo's first two albums (1991's Leisure and 1993's Modern Life Is Rubbish) gave little indication that Blur would soon become the toast of Britain; the discs were intelligent and tuneful, but they weren't what you'd call landmarks in modern entertainment history. However, 1994's Parklife was a notable leap forward for Blur, from the aforementioned "Girls & Boys" (a should-have-been-a-hit straight from the Pete Shelley songbook) to Albarn character pieces such as "End of a Century," "Bank Holiday," "The Debt Collector" and "Trouble in the Message Centre." Sure, it was derivative (the songs recalled both British Invasion-era outfits and late-Seventies new-wave practitioners), but the presentation was cheeky enough to compensate for a certain lack of freshness. In short, it was great fun, and thoroughly deserving of the acclaim it received in England.
Albarn gives Blur's breakthrough an almost mythological spin. "In a way, our commercial success came about because we grabbed the zeitgeist at the perfect moment," he purrs. "It was a weird thing when it happened. For a very long period in British music, bands didn't sell a million records. And Parklife just about made it obligatory for bands to sell loads to be seen as having any success. It was a surprise to us." He takes pleasure in adding, "With Oasis, I don't think it's been a surprise, because they make good beer-drinking music and nothing more. I don't really believe in music being a revolutionary force, but I do believe that there are higher and lower forms of it. And when the higher forms do become commercially successful, I think it's better for everyone. It's just an opportunity to hear something with more quality in the endless stream of noise that we all receive every day. And I think everyone should strive for that."
That comment explains in part why the ambitiousness of The Great Escape feels rather self-conscious. Albarn is in storyteller mode throughout most of the fifteen new songs assembled here, and he pulls off some pleasantly incisive lyrical tropes; "He Thought of Cars," a chipper satire about modern life, is filled with them. But some of the words (such as those on "Mr. Robinson's Quango") strain for a cleverness they don't quite attain. Likewise, the music on Escape doesn't sport as many memorable hooks as Parklife. The disc certainly isn't a washout: "Stereotypes," "Best Days" and "The Universal" (the last marked by one of Albarn's best choruses) all make a considerable impact, and even the lesser entries are never unpleasant. But neither is the platter likely to win over those Americans who somehow managed to resist the more consistent delights of Parklife.
On the other hand, Escape has done nothing to diminish Blur's popularity in its homeland, and it's winning over new fans in Europe as a whole. At least publicly, Albarn sounds optimistic. "It's kind of a gradual thing, our career," he says. "We're like a fog. We're drifting slowly over the Atlantic."
By contrast, Justine Frischmann, who is both Albarn's significant other and the lead singer of Elastica, is more like a fast-moving thunderstorm; her band, known for its own brand of musical borrowing, earned a substantial American audience almost instantly. According to Albarn, Frischmann has come to appreciate the differences between the American press and its English equivalent. "Occasionally in the last year, she would call me up and say, `I'm not looking forward to coming back home, because they treat me like a proper human being over here.'"
Meanwhile, Brit scribblers have dubbed Albarn and Frischmann a supercouple--a homegrown Kurt and Courtney. "We just went on holiday at Christmas," Albarn divulges, "and when I got back, there were photos of it--National Enquirer-style photos. They must have been on a boat near the island that we went to with this incredibly strong lens. It's all very odd. You've got to watch your step, because that kind of thing can really wreck people's lives if they're not smart."
Still, Albarn isn't the type to complain too vigorously about the glare of flashbulbs; after all, Blur's American blitz demonstrates that he wants more attention, not less. "I suppose it's a sort of heightened form of survival of the fittest," he says about the publicity, a few seconds prior to being called back to the film set. "If you get to the point where you're in the spotlight and you can survive for eighteen or nineteen years, then you've really done something, haven't you?
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