Woo Hoo: Blur (Finally) Breaks America
By Alex Rice
The Great Escape may have signaled the end of “The Life Trilogy,” but if any album in the band’s catalog is such a grand getaway, it’s the self-titled 1997 follow-up that finally introduced Blur to the American mainstream.
Coxon seized creative control of the band, steering them away from Top of the Pops (“I didn't want people to like us anymore”) and towards the noise being made in the U.S. underground. Albarn decamped to Iceland for much of Blur’s gestation, resulting in the most adventurous material yet from a band developing a serious knack for reinvention. Out went the “chimney sweep” character portraits and in came heroin (“Beetlebum”), trip-hop (“Theme from Retro”) and feedback loops (“Essex Dogs”), making it twice now that Food was sure its prized act was committing commercial suicide. And twice they were wrong; Blur made for three straight U.K. number-ones and, thanks to some tune that went “Woo hoo,” outsold their four previous LPs combined in the U.S.
Blur was partially recorded at Reykjavík’s Studio Grettisgat, and the group returned to the tiny nation on the Arctic Circle leg of its supporting tour, as part of a trio of once-in-a-lifetime gigs in musically-underserved locales that also hit Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
It may have appeared to be the most collaborative point yet in the Blur sagas, as Coxon and Albarn teamed up to right the ship away from the gossip rags and teenyboppers; a fresh, eponymous voyage to reclaim the group’s identity. But really, its 15 tracks chronicle the first cracks in the iceberg. In an Icelandic television documentary about the unique series of shows, Nyrst í Norðrið, the inter-band tension is as palpable as the b-roll scenery is beautiful.
“I didn’t really ever think I’d come here and I kind of wish I hadn’t,” laments Coxon, never comfortable with the band’s celebrity, as he watches his cover-star singer get a pre-gig stretch from his personal trainer. “I don’t want Blur to go around the world putting their great big muddy footprint everywhere.” Meanwhile, Albarn bemoans the fact that, even in Nuuk, he finds himself giving a press conference.
Blur had escaped the tabloids and finally broken America with “Song 2,” but it seems that the songs had broken them.
Alex Rice is the founder of Bandbox. His writing has appeared in the Denver Post, Guitar World and Minneapolis's City Pages.