There is a clip of Damon Albarn being interviewed in August of 1995, on the eve of his band’s chart showdown against Oasis. This is the moment right before “Britpop” becomes both an inescapable and utterly meaningless term – in retrospect, that’s all so obvious. Yet Albarn, Blur’s clever, knowing narrator, gamely accepts his part in this competition, admitting a faint anxiety that Oasis’s single will outsell theirs but expressing a confidence that they’ll do just fine. It’s clear that he has thought about this far too much. Within days, their single, “Country House,” ends up outselling Oasis’s “Roll With It” by a decent margin. But by the end of the year, Oasis will have comprehensively won the war, making just about every other band in the U.K. seem irrelevant (or, in the case of Blur, inauthentic).
For many, this is as famous as Blur will ever be. But in history’s longish view, Blur’s defeat only hastened Albarn’s maturation as an artist. While Blur’s albums, most of which have aged wonderfully, were brilliant commentaries on modern British life, Albarn’s creative ambitions have blossomed in magically unpredictable ways in the decade since “Britpop.” His able, grainy voice and passionately obtuse lyrics have remained constant, but his career has been renewed, time and again, by a deep-seated sense of exploration. From Blur to the “virtual band” Gorillaz to his taste-making Honest Jon’s record label, Albarn’s absorbing and unlikely career inspires no obvious comparisons. He seems to have finally realized that there is no worthier competitor than the obscure corners of one’s own imagination.
Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree first started playing together in 1989 at London's Goldsmiths College — it was the first time Coxon, James or Rowntree had lived in so cosmopolitan and possibility-rich a city. They were initially called Seymour, a reference to J.D. Salinger or the Swell Maps, depending on who you believe. All of which is to say they shared the same story as countless other bright, slightly pretentious, hopeful young things in the post-Madchester era. A deal came quickly, they were renamed Blur (at their label head's behest) and they found themselves on the pop assembly line before they had perfected a full repertoire of songs. Much of Leisure was written and recorded on the spot, which explains the album's immature, generic sound and occasionally insipid lyrics. The stringy guitars and baggy beat of "There's No Other Way" was their lightning-in-a-bottle moment, and "She's So High" was an able approximation of dreamy shoegaze. But for every pensive moment like the slow-aching "Sing," one suffered through three unimaginative, "Bang"-style by-numbers dance tunes. Leisure's modest success meant they were pantomiming along to "There's No..." and "She's So High" for months to come, and an American tour was successful only in accelerating their burgeoning alcoholism. When they returned, Leisure couldn't sound more antiquated to a British public infatuated with loud, American guitars.
It certainly didn't have to turn out this way. Blur's 1991 debut, Leisure, was an enjoyable but somewhat vacuous assemblage of the era's dance-pop clichés. It did not suggest four men with great artistic ambitions, let alone the ironic wit necessary to produce a masterpiece like Modern Life is Rubbish. Originally titled Britain Vs. America, and inspired by a disastrous tour of the States, Blur's second album is a rugged, sentimental embrace of Britishness — as well as a critique of how that ethos had been perverted by a doggedly American consumerism. From its melancholy, Kinks-like opener, "For Tomorrow," to the pastoral "Chemical World" to the two-tone stomp of "Popscene," this was a band uninterested in trading on their charm and good looks. Albarn luxuriates in his sentences, at times sounding as though he is admiring his own, extra-elongated accent. The same self-consciousness coursed through his lyrics, populated by sketches of uniquely late-century English characters like "Colin Zeal," "Julian" ("Pressure on Julian") and the dull suburbanites of "Advert" and "Sunday Sunday." Despite its title, this was not a nostalgic, backwards-sounding record. It might have borrowed its ragged, punky energy and mod imagery from other times, but this was an album about what it meant to embrace one's station as a British band in 1993, on the cusp of great changes.
"Call it London" was the most usable piece of advice given Blur by their label boss — he thought the band's third album sounded like a mistake. There's something charmingly clunky about Parklife. Its songs are obtuse, willfully awkward and far more playful than the career-reset fury of Modern Life. Where their previous album suggested four men trading the straitjacket of expectation in for tailor-made mod suits, the open, diverse Parklife infiltrates a wider set of locations, as on their packaged-holiday-ridiculing, synth-pop hit "Girls and Boys." Alex James's bass frolics alongside Albarn's seemingly nonsense rhymes while Graham Coxon's intermittent shards of guitar remind us: approach the nightclub with caution, and a bit of self-awareness. Albarn's instincts as a cultural critic had matured. New characters populated his songs — "Tracy Jacks," the staid middle class citizenry of "Parklife," a solitary soul on the cliffs of Dover, "Jubilee," the self-loathing Brits of "Magic America," as well as London itself, the unkind city of "London Loves." And even Albarn's own ambitions and anxieties were scrutinized on "Badhead" and the glamorous "To the End."
Parklife helped inaugurate an era of "Britpop" pseudo-nationalism — what else would you expect from an album that featured a song called "Bank Holiday" and a prominent guest spot from British actor Phil Daniels, of "Jimmy in Quadrophenia" fame? But, as with Modern Life, this was not a celebration of the British present: An acerbic chauvinism remained; but this time, you could dance to it, pogo along at the concert, etc. From "Girls and Boys" to the astounding concert-closer "This is a Low," Parklife was the most complete album Blur ever made. By 1995, they had somehow pulled off an unlikely trick: they had become pop stars on their own terms, ascending the very populist charts that their songs suggested a philosophical opposition against. "Tracy," "Jubilee," "Bill" from "Magic America" — they buy records, too.
By 1995, Blur had become bona fide stars — the kind who would be profiled on the nightly news or featured on schoolgirls' folders and binders. But rivals had emerged from a different corner of the British experience, and they would make for tougher opponents than Suede. From Manchester came Oasis, the uncouth, hard-working, laborer-toughs to Blur's clever, middle class students. In the run-up to The Great Escape and Oasis's bafflingly titled (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, the two bands were pitted in a battle for singles chart supremacy. Both singles were fairly unmemorable: Blur's "Country House" — the single that thwarted Oasis, if momentarily — was a wobbly, self-caricature of a single, lacking the verve of their older material. The rivalry weakened Blur significantly — their tussle with Oasis had stained them as elitists, and stresses within the band began surfacing as well. This context helps explain why The Great Escape is an absorbing but patchy work. Despite their triumphant run, Blur continued to mine their well-worn fascination with modern alienation: "Mr. Robinson's Quango," "He Dreamed of Cars" and "Ernold Same" reprised familiar Blur themes, the latter featuring a Daniels-esque guest turn from MP Ken Livingston. But such a critical vantage seemed less thoughtful when lobbed from atop the charts. It's still rich with enthralling moments: "Yuko and Hiro" is one of their most gorgeous tunes, an exhausted, cosmic dispatch from a Japanese factory, while "The Universal" is quite possibly the most captivating ballad ever composed about the new docility that await us in the next century.
Blur had achieved clarity of purpose following their disillusioning Leisure tours, self-identifying as an antidote to American culture. By 1997, they had begun to revisit this stance. Their self-titled fourth album wasn't a refusal of old dogmas, but it did seem less interested in the knowing, self-aware hijinx that defined their reign as "Britpop" icons. "Beetlebum" was a downcast lead single, its choppy guitars and bruised, drug-hangover lyrics suggesting a shift in Blur's sound as well as their perspective. "You're So Great" owed a debt to American indie rock, with its patina of gristly, lo-fi feedback, while the soon to be ubiquitous "Song 2" both lampooned and regaled in the cathartic stomp of American grunge. They still sound like Blur, of course: "M.O.R." was a fine Bowie homage, and they seemed to have regained their sense of whimsy on "Country Sad Ballad Man" and the John Peel favorite "On Your Own." Their lives no longer resembled a non-stop party, and perhaps this was for the best. The deceptively cheery, Parklife-sounding "Look Inside America" re-approached their favorite villain, this time with a bit more humor and maturity — "I'm not trying to make her mine," Albarn sings, almost with a hint of relief.
There's an ambition to 13 which suggested that Blur — still living down their part in the rise and fall of "Britpop" — was finally beginning to regain their identity as a band. Just in time for their dissolution, as it was. 13 was the last album that would feature the contributions of Graham Coxon, whose modest pop gem, "Coffee and TV," remains one of Blur's brightest moments. Thanks partly to William Orbit, who took over from longtime producer Stephen Street, a sense of exploration courses through tracks like the ethereal "Trimm Trabb" and "Mellow Song," while "1992" came across like an unhinged version of their Leisure favorite "Sing." Deep into a career built on studying the whims and habits of others, Albarn scrutinized his own failed relationship with longtime girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica for two of Blur's greatest-ever moments. Album opener "Tender" was a staggering, soulful number featuring heartening interplay between Albarn and Coxon — a last gasp at two relationships. The heartbreaker, though, was the deflated future-blues of "No Distance Left to Run," an unafraid admission of total defeat that lingers longer than its three-and-a-half minutes.
The premise of the "virtual band" Gorillaz came to Albarn and his then-roommate, artist and Tank Girl creator Jamie Hewlett, as they sat in front of the television, tranquilized by MTV's parade of images. One guesses that the idea of make-believe band mates might have appealed to someone whose relationship with his actual band was growing strained. At the very least, this was an opportunity for Albarn, whose strong will had guided Blur through their crusades, to reset his image, or at least disappear behind a screen. A radical departure from the Blur aesthetic, Albarn, the only permanent Gorilla, chose producer Dan the Automator and rapper Del tha Funkee Homosapien for the "band's" 2001 debut. As such, Gorillaz sounds like an album-length amplification of the trio's previous collaboration, "Time Keeps on Slipping," from Del's visionary 2000 Deltron 3030 album. Albarn is only nominally the front man. He comes across as vague, inscrutable and unaffected, the spry Del appearing every now and then to riddle him with playful, exaggerated counterpunches. Automator's sense of humor permeates everything: The hummable "Clint Eastwood" is distant but never forlorn, the sampled horns of "Rock the House" call to mind a perverse TV quiz show and Albarn's slacker cheer on "19-2000" is matched by a cloyingly clunky, advert-ready keyboard jig. On the strength of Automator's hip-hop-as-pop vision and Hewlett's intricate, distinctive music videos, Gorillaz was wildly successful. Perhaps it worked so well because Albarn understood exactly what it was: a deeply stylized critique of the celebrity culture that had made him famous in the first place, with just enough cartoonish mystery to make it onto MTV.
To those who had maintained a passing interest in Damon Albarn's solo material — usually reserved to an instrumental shuffle on a Blur album or soundtrack — the triumph of Mali Music was truly unexpected. Albarn traveled through Mali as part of an Oxfam delegation, jamming with local kids and musicians — most notably Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate. Albarn's involvement seems to be minimal, humming along to furiously plucked guitars, imagining harmonies in unfamiliar keys and filling in spaces with plumes of melodica. These sketches of song collected on the road were then reassembled in the studio, though the fragmentary, textured feel of the original recordings remain: wisps of haunted chants, bursts of strident, sawing strings, mysterious drops of kalimba. Some bottom-end is added to "Kela Village" while a dance track emerges to absorb the strident chorus of "Makelekele." A common melody smoke-rings through "4 A.M. at Toumani's" and "Institut National Des Arts." In a rare spotlight turn, Albarn grabs onto that evocative shard for the stunning, hopeful "Sunset Coming On," Mali Music's most conventional moment. This is a mesmerizing and intimate album that benefits from Albarn's ear, as well as his ultimate willingness to surrender his front-man status.
By the time Blur reconvened to record Think Tank in 2002, both Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn had begun crafting distinct identities as solo artists. Where Coxon committed his jagged, lo-fi compositions to a bedroom four-track, Albarn's ambitions for musical collaboration continued to expand, thanks to his Oxfam-sponsored travels. Revitalized by a new set of influences, Albarn captained Blur toward looser song structures, a greater reliance on sampling and keyboards and, thanks to Coxon's departure early in the Think Tank sessions, a less guitar-based sound. It's a bewitching, modest album rich with texture and imagination. At times, its triumphs are deeply unexpected: A Moroccan orchestra accompanies them on the lovely single "Out of Time" while a dubby ambience suffuses "Ambulance." Yet they still sound like Blur. The trio looked elsewhere to replace Coxon's lost heft: "Brothers and Sisters" is built on layers of delicately overdubbed vocals; bright, '80s synths shoot through the joyous "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club"; and Fatboy Slim's machinery helps fill out the chaos of the unusually generic "Crazy Beat." "So I wean myself off slowly," Albarn sings with an affected airiness on the radiant "Sweet Song." He's anticipating the band's impending dissolution. But between Think Tank's fragile, globetrotting sound and its weary, lightly post-9/11 lyricism, his latest reinvention was already under way.
For the second Gorillaz album, Albarn traded Del and the Automator in for producer Danger Mouse. Fresh off his Jay-Z-meets-the-Beatles Grey Album success, Danger Mouse repaid Albarn's confidence with imagination and verve. Spookier, denser and darker than Gorillaz, Demon Days recounted the tale of the last primates to survive the apocalypse. It's a versatile crew, the ones who saw the light and lived through it: De La Soul chase the madcap rhythms of the excellent "Feel Good Inc.," M.F. Doom lends the sparse "November Has Come" a bruised ambience, Roots Manuva — with assistance from Martina Topley-Bird — tames the frenetic, almost-dubstep rhythms of "All Alone" and Danger Mouse proves to be an able, patient heir to Automator on the Think Tank-sounding "Dirty Harry." And then there are the true survivors. A straight-faced Dennis Hopper delivers the Gorillaz creation/destruction myth like a bedtime story on "Fire Coming out of a Monkey's Head," before Albarn saunters in with a casual cool. A suggestion that the end might actually be near: a rehabbed and bedraggled Shaun Ryder, whose late 1980s records with the Happy Mondays inspired Leisure and countless others, shows up for an off-kilter cameo shadowing the tipsy melody of "Dare."
A sense of curiosity has guided the past decade of Damon Albarn's career. During Blur's heyday, he used his celebrity to collaborate with predecessors like Ray Davies of the Kinks or Terry Hall of the Specials. Without the stability or readymade expectations of Blur, he began to choose his collaborators more randomly, treating each new project as a challenge. For The Good, the Bad and the Queen Albarn assembled the kind of line-up usually reserved for telethons or rock critic confabs: Paul Simonon of the Clash on bass, the underrated Simon Tong (formerly of the Verve and Blur) on guitar, Afrobeat legend Tony Allen behind the drums and Danger Mouse behind the glass. It shouldn't have worked, and they certainly shouldn't have sounded this natural, restrained or coherent as a unit. But The Good, the Bad and the Queen was a surprisingly strong marriage of different histories and styles. Most of the songs are carried by a single element: Tong's elegant waltz carries "80's Life," Allen's hypnotic drum patterns propel "History Song" and the wondrous "Nature Springs," while Simonon's understated bass lends "Kingdom of Doom" an edge of menace. "The Good, the Bad and the Queen," the final track, explains it all, a vaguely uplifting tale of crackheads and royalty sharing the same unprejudiced sun, climaxing in three minutes that finally delivers solos and chaos aplenty.
Amid Blur's Union Jack-draped anointment — first at the Brit Awards, and then as the unofficial send-off to the 2012 Olympics — it's worth reminding the world that Damon Albarn is one the U.K.'s arch internationalists. His work with the underrated Mali Music and DRC Music projects, the Afro-Albion supergroup the Good, the Bad and the Queen, and, of course, Gorillaz, has shown him to be a gracious and dextrous ringleader, drawing on a global palette of sound without it feeling like mere tourism.
He continues his run of form with his new band, Rocket Juice & the Moon, featuring Flea on bass and Tony Allen on drums. "Fusion" music generally conjures nightmarish visions of dreadlocked white trustafarians loping around in daddy's field, but the blend of funk, highlife, dub and psychedelia is perfectly judged throughout. Dub techno master Mark Ernestus mixed the record, and doesn't let it turn into 1970s Lagosor King Tubby pastiche, instead keeping the production clean and aerated. While lesser bands might choose to put a plodding breakbeat behind these brass-laden tracks (augmented by the ever-skilful Hypnotic Brass Ensemble), Allen keeps everything polyrhythmically on its toes — as you might expect, he and Flea make a potent and danceable rhythm section.
The vocal contributions seal the album though. Ghanaian rapper M.anifest is a revelation, unfolding extended sets of bars in a voice and flow reminiscent of Roots Manuva; Fatouma Diawara brings keening desert blues to "Lolo" and "Follow-Fashion"; Erykah Badu weaves her way expertly through the shimmying "Hey, Shooter." And Albarn comes to the fore on "Poison," singing his best post-Blur song with an unforgettable weather-beaten melody of heartbreaking simplicity. Released on the Honest Jon's label that Albarn co-owns and which has sketched out "world music" in imaginative new shades, this is a seamless, sunlit meeting of cultures, a reminder that "fusion" need not be a dirty word. — Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Stability and Damon Albarn might as well be antonyms. Throughout his two-decade career, the forward-thinking singer has maintained an unrelenting desire for progressive off-the-cuff experimentation. The success of his most cherished acts, Blur and Gorillaz, gave him the license for such sorcery. But even these now have a less-than-certain future. Albarn has tried it all: There's Rocket Juice & the Moon, his Flea and Tony Allen-assisted Afrofunk crew; last year the singer traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo to record a benefit album with local musicians; dude has even made an iPad album. Unsurprisingly, his latest concoction is no less ambitious; Dr. Dee, the score to a folk-opera inspired by Dr. John Dee, a 16th-century philosopher, astrologer and once-believed-to-be madman, is a sprawling collection of orchestral movements, elegiac choral accompaniment, and manic asides woven together by Albarn's alternately soothing and chilling vocals. Fewer than half the 18 tracks feature Albarn, and several are strictly instrumental. Yet, there are surefire nuggets here: "Apple Carts", a tempestuous lullaby, and "The Marvelous Dream," a typically droll, Albarn-ian dirge on the fog that eclipses our wildest ambitions, both fit snugly into the singer's ever-expanding choose-as-you-go musical repertoire. The only question is: What's next? — Dan Hyman