The other day I found myself watching Central Intelligence, a 2016 goofball action romp starring Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as a unicorn-loving super-spy who saves the world by teaming up—for reasons which are still not altogether clear to me—with his old schoolmate, an accountant played by Kevin Hart. Look, I know it's not going to win any Oscars but I was on a plane at the time. Nobody wants to strap in to 12 Years A Slave at 35,000 feet. Anyway, there's a scene where the pair jump out of a skyscraper together through a plate glass window in a hail of bullets. I'm sure you know the type, whether or not you've had the pleasure of Central Intelligence. As the glass shatters and they burst into the air, the voice you hear isn't The Rock's or Kevin Hart's, but the sheer, uncut exhilaration of Damon Albarn screaming: "WOOOO-HOOOOO!" It's a dumb moment in a dumb film, but hearing "Song 2" in a Hollywood blockbuster almost exactly 20 years after it first came out was a weird and timely reminder of what a transformative impact that song, and the self-titled album it appears on, had on Blur's relationship with America and their whole career.
In the years leading up to the release of Blur, the band were at a crossroads. Already growing tired of the parochial Britpop scene, they were also confronted with the fact that they'd been roundly beaten in the race to break America. While on tour in the States in early 1996 they could only watch on as arch-rivals Oasis posted 100,000 sales of (What's The Story) Morning Glory every week, reaching number four on the Billboard charts. Their own album, The Great Escape, sold just 122,000 copies in America all year.
At the same time, relationships within the band were increasingly fractious. Guitarist Graham Coxon, who was drinking heavily, had begun to resent Albarn's musical control of the band and hated bassist Alex James for embracing a celeb lifestyle that saw him spend most of his time quaffing champagne with Damien Hirst. Coxon's response was to retreat into himself and start listening to more American, lo-fi music. As he told Select magazine, in 1999: "I brought some Pavement records in during The Great Escape and they were instantly dismissed by everyone. I'd have some drinks and fly off the handle and say I wanted to be in a death-metal hardcore hip-hop group. Perhaps I was being mardy but I wanted to know why I couldn't play the music I liked […] I wrote Damon a letter before we recorded Blur. I said I wanted to scare people again."
They did as he said. In the summer of 1996, while Oasis were gearing up to play their era-defining shows at Knebworth, Blur turned their back on Britpop and embraced the American artists Coxon had been urging the rest of the band to listen to. Indeed, Albarn even decided he needed to get out of Britain altogether and bought a house in Reykjavik. His idea to record the album in Iceland as well was swiftly cut down by Coxon who, having just completed a lengthy US tour with bandmates he wasn't exactly best mates with, couldn't think of anything worse. Eventually, a compromise was reached: Blur was initially recorded at Mayfair studios in London in June and then, halfway through production, the recordings were taken to Reykjavik where Albarn, James, producer Stephen Street and engineer John Smith finished work on vocals and keyboards. A year on from The Great Escape, the band made their great escape from Britpop.
Whenever a band with four records already behind them releases a self-titled record it's usually a sign of conscious reinvention. A good way to understand quite how stark that reinvention was for Blur is to listen to bouncy, knockabout final The Great Escape single "Charmless Man" back to back with woozy, soporific Blur opening track and lead single "Beetlebum." It was as if somebody had suddenly shut off the party lights, so it was little surprise when Albarn later confirmed the song was about inspired by heroin. "That whole period of a lot of people's lives was fairly muddied by heroin, for a lot of people," explained Albarn when asked about "Beetlebum" in 2010 documentary No Distance Left To Run. "It's in that place. A lot of stuff was, at that time."
One of things which makes Blur still so remarkable, two decades after its release, is that it's the sound of the band reinventing themselves not just once, but over and over again. The drowsy, narcotic "Beetlebum" is immediately followed with the tongue-in-cheek grunge pastiche of "Song 2", which as mentioned earlier remains one of Hollywood's go-to adrenaline patches. After being forced to watch Oasis' American success from the sidelines, it was the single that finally broke Blur in the States.
America's embracing of Blur coincided with the band turning their gaze towards it, particularly on tracks like "Country Sad Ballad Man." Ironically, the most Britpop-sounding track on the album is "Look Inside America," which explicitly chronicles life on tour in the States. Encouraging his bandmates to widen their musical horizons wasn't the only sign of Coxon's growing influence. Blur also features the first Blur song which Coxon sings and wrote the lyrics for—"You're So Great"—a shambling alcoholic love ballad which is heart-breaking in its directness. Coxon was reportedly so shy about performing it that he sang and played it underneath a table in the Mayfair studio.
The album is far more than just Coxon's record or the American record. There are still influences ricocheting in from all over the place. Take "M.O.R.," which borrows its chord progression from David Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging" and "Fantastic Voyage," both from Lodger, and both songs which originally came out of Bowie and Brian Eno's experiment to write different songs using the same chord progression. Whether Blur's track should be considered a rip-off or loving homage, it was only after it was released that Bowie and Eno's names were added to the credits.
While it had taken Coxon's nudging to push Albarn in a more experimental direction, the frontman soon embraced this new form of songwriting. "I can sit at my piano and write brilliant observational pop songs all day long but you've got to move on," he told Select in 1999, with characteristic modesty. Nowhere is this more in evidence than "On Your Own," which paved the way for Albarn's later career with its Burroughsian lyrics and Roland TR-606 drum machine backing. "That was one of the first every Gorillaz tunes, if you want to look at how things sort of develop," he told Australia's TripleJ in 2010. "That was definitely a moment where I thought, I quite like doing it this way as well. I definitely ripped off Blur with Gorillaz. If Blur want to sue me, no problem."
Prior to the recording of Blur, it looked just as likely that the band would split up as they would record another album. Yet out of that adversity and tension they produced their most varied record, and one of their best. Despite coming in under an hour, it's a record that manages to encapsulate a whole world of musical ideas, running the gamut from smart to dumb, and from drowsily narcotic to as explosive as The Rock jumping through a plate glass window—as "Song 2" ending up in Central Intelligence proves, it's the record that took Blur places no-one ever expected them to go to.
Kevin EG Perry is a writer living in London. Follow him on Twitter.