Two years before Noel and Tony and Diana and Robbie closed the door and turned off the lights at the lavish party that was Cool Britannia, there was The Great Escape.
Written and recorded in the midst of an arena tour on the heels of Parklife’s unexpected success, Blur’s fourth album was supposed to be the triumphant synopsis of Britpop and the showcase of a band at their artistic and commercial peak. And for a minute there, it was just that. The release was greeted with near-perfect reviews in the British music press and its lead single famously granted the band their very first UK Number One. Then along came “Wonderwall“ and who did those middle-class art school snobs think they were anyway?
Today the record unanimously ties with their debut Leisure as Blur’s worst moment, the one time in their career they did not perform a sonic left turn but rather produced Parklife turned up to 11. Damon Albarn himself has called it “messy” and “one of two bad records” he’s ever made, surely aided by memories of a promotion schedule that nearly saw the band disintegrating. It is a timely document of the exact moment it all went wrong, the soundtrack to a Britpop party (not-so-)quietly turned dark.
It is also completely wonderful.
There’s a twisted kind of beauty (and retrospective satisfaction) in the fact that what was supposed to be the ultimate celebration of a genre, its high point, is secretly its darkest moment — as if watching the party band segue into a funeral march and inexplicably witness the guests simply keep on dancing. By 1995, what started as a reaction against the American dominance of grunge and a celebration of the glories of British music from decades past began to display its repulsive side with pointless chart battles and the ugly sexism of “lad” culture.
And so Parklife’s loving irony yielded to The Great Escape’s bitter cynicism. The album features enough hooks to last ten bands’ lifetimes, yet it is by far the coldest and darkest record Blur have produced. And therein lies its brilliance. We meet characters unhappy in marriage, unsatisfied at work, in a state of perpetual boredom, emotionally numb, hating their friends and only ever finding ephemeral release through giving in to consumerist urges or pharmaceutiful relief. There’s no sympathy to be spared and no hope to be found. Producer Stephen Street’s glossy sheen only adds to the sense that this is a record simultaneously for and about the Patrick Batemans of this world. Even when sounding cheeriest, the album never loses sight of its thematic core of facing loneliness & emptiness, and conjuring images of pre-millenial corporate angst. Tellingly, the undeservingly vilified hit-single Country House has its best moment when underneath the music-hall bombast a middle-eight emerges to the words of “Blow, blow me out, I am so sad, I don’t know why…”
The album’s strongest songs, however, are undeniably the ballads. Best Days, The Universal and He Thought of Cars make up some of the biggest and brightest accomplishments of the band’s career. And then there’s Yuko and Hiro at the end of it all. It’s not Blur’s best closing track — that would be Resigned off Modern Life is Rubbish or Think Tank’s heartbreaking Battery in Your Leg — but it holds a special place on the most uniquely satisfying record of the Blur discography.
Originally titled “Japanese Workers”, it’s an understated love song in which its titular characters work for “the company that looks to the future” and find those corporate responsibilites that secure their livelihood to be the very forces that keep them apart. Yet they make it through the week with the calming aid of intoxicants and the knowledge that Sunday will bring them together once more.
It’s a tender moment of beauty and longing in itself, but there’s no detective’s eye needed to discern the song’s true subjects. At the time, Damon Albarn was in a much-publicized relationship with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and with Yuko and Hiro we get a thinly-veiled peek at Albarn’s emotional state.
And so it takes The Great Escape fifty-three minutes to arrive at the chrous of Yuko and Hiro and Albarn reached all the way to Japan to conceal it, but here he is, finally, presenting us most beautifully with the album’s first and only honest moment:
I never see you / We’re never together / I’ll love you forever