In the late 90s, lead singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon both were struggling to exorcise their demons. Albarn was going through an awful breakup with girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica fame meanwhile Coxon was battling alcoholism. Deeper down however, the relationship between Damon and Graham was also beginning to fall apart permanently. Both men would channel their primal screams into one of the best albums that Blur ever recorded and also one of the last great albums of that decade. Blur began to dismantle their BritPop sound on their previous self titled release in 1997. That album featured many lo-fi tracks, dirty guitar licks and a fascination with the Pavement sound circa Slanted & Enchanted. On 13, Blur went even deeper down into the rabbit hole of creation taking all of us loyal listeners for a wild ride.
This was the first Blur album to not have producer Stephen Street at the helm. Street had been the point man on the previous five albums. Instead the band elected to have renowned electronic producer/musician William Orbit handle the control desk to help push the group to even more cerebral palettes. The album opens with what might very well be the crowning achievement of Blur’s career, an acoustic driven gospel stomper called “Tender”. The song just keeps on building momentum until becoming a giant and joyous singalong with both Damon and Graham sharing vocal duties. I have long considered it the “Hey Jude” of the 90s. Blur have a real knack for starting their records with killer tunes (“For Tomorrow”, “Girls and Boys”, “Beetlebum”) and 13 is no exception.
Prior to 13, Graham Coxon had only sung lead vocals one time on the heart breaking “You’re So Great” from 1997’s blur. He delivers another one of Blur’s all-time knockout tracks “Coffee & TV”. Coxon sings of his mundane lifestyle while trying to beat alcoholism and find a peaceful balance in his life. It is truly one of the few bright sunny spots on the album musically. The track features one of Graham’s best distorted guitar solos reminding us all that he could slay with the best of them regardless of his physical or mental state of being.
Blur’s sixth album very much feels like a testing ground for Damon’s upcoming experimental adventures with Gorillaz the following year. Songs like “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.”, “Battle”, “Trailer Park” and “Trimm Trabb” drift in electronic directions previously unseen by the band. This was a band no longer content on being a modern day Kinks. They wanted something more, something different, something better even as inner band tensions remained high. Granted Blur didn’t completely abandon their guitar identity, Graham’s mighty thrashing is all over the record like on “Bugman”, “Swamp Song” and “1992”.
Blur were basically attempting what Radiohead would later accomplish in grand fashion one year later on Kid A, A complete tear down of everything that came prior. Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave were shapeshifting sonically but they were also destroying the BritPop image the group had become synonymous with ever since Parklife in 1994. We all know Damon was singing about Justine on “No Distance Left To Run” but he might as well been singing about the entire Blur mission statement up until that point. This was an album about letting go of the past, coping with the present and trying to find new ways to forge ahead both musically but also on a personal level between band members, friends and lovers.
I’ve recently tried to buy 13 on vinyl but was very surprised to learn that it is almost impossible to find! It’s out of stock on Blur’s official website. It isn’t available on Amazon and the prices on eBay hover in the $200-300 range. You can locate it on Discogs for $30 plus another $30 in shipping fees! Total madness. Every other Blur album is so easy to come by. I’m not sure why 13 is the difficult album to get a hold of. It was reissued in 2012 like all the other records. Perhaps it just has that big of a cult following 20 years later as people now realize what a masterpiece that album really is. For me this is where the Blur that I grew up with in high school during the 90s officially ended despite releasing Think Tank in 2003 minus Graham and eventually reuniting a decade after that. The great Blur swan song is actually 13 and a damn fine way to cap off an amazing artistic run. Now if I could only just find a vinyl copy….