13 (Virgin), the new album from England’s Blur, opens with a little country music. “Tender is my heart, you know, it’s screwing up my life,” croons Damon Albarn, Blur’s lead singer, cross-genre adventurer and unassumingly starry blond face. The tune, Blur’s current and best single, is entitled “Tender,” and Mr. Albarn and his three bandmates–guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree–have recorded it with a deliberate touch and self-respecting care. It sounds like some rare apprehension of unspeakable pain and hope from four guys on close terms with Hank Williams, Scott Walker, and, of course, themselves.
“Tender” is a masterpiece, all right. It qualifies on crystalline intonation and pitch alone, a deft retrieval of the just-slightly-sharp Appalachian howls that you wouldn’t think appeal to a “Britpop” juggernaut like Blur. Oh, but they do. These occur during those moments when Mr. Albarn skips a bar, swallows hard, and lays sublime phrases of “Oh my baby/ Oh my baby” into a structure that is half ambling 70’s jangle-groove, half 60’s variety-hour rock with plummy vocal harmonies (courtesy of the London Community Gospel Choir). In both its bright ideas and visceral executions, “Tender” is eerie in ways records seldom are anymore. In other words: Woo- hooo , as Blur put it a couple of years ago on “Song 2,” the MTV-backed single that made them bigger deals in America than did “Girls & Boys,” their electro-glammy showpiece from 1994’s Parklife .
They are among the most resourceful bands in the world, Blur, because they take rock language for what it is right now: a bunch of wonderful sonic stuff and perhaps unlikely attitudes out of which you can still make cool things. For Mr. Albarn, who further explores the great world of timbres and fluffed trombone notes, as well as the creaky life of 19th-century American folk music, on Ravenous (Virgin), the outstanding film score he wrote and recorded with lush British minimalist Michael Nyman, the days of rock being the sworn enemy of Western classical music seem well past. And the ostensibly empty-headed pop moment, that quick flash of pleasure that has made four generations of rockers sick with worry, envy or worse? Mr. Albarn, in the British press, bounds into interviews aglow with kind words about “Believe,” the recent Cher single now avoidable only by leaving Earth. How about the annoying old-world superiority of people who play the pop game only in theory and have the antique nerve to write actual books? Mr. Albarn, a Martin Amis fan who quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Tender,” doesn’t sweat it.
Techno, Massive Attack remixes, hip-hop, the rise of the Internet, theater music–none faze Blur, whose Mr. Coxon plays enormous guitar all over 13 , as though feedback was invented somewhere around, oh, yesterday. As “art-rockers,” that slightly derisive category the American press likes to put them in, Blur make excellent stalwarts, actually more Led Zeppelin in their multitrack fervor than Yes.
Which isn’t to say they don’t often favor the odd choice. For 13 , Blur engaged the services of William Orbit, a producer whose name doesn’t trip off the tongue too often in connection with guitar rock. Mr. Orbit began to acquire a good rep during the late 80’s as an electronics-based producer and studio owner in London. He recorded his own restless, fluidly orchestrated instrumental synth albums as well as recordings with Torch Song, his vehicle for the singer Laurie Mayer, who sometimes covered rock-era classics like Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.” In this regard, Mr. Orbit helped pioneer the later Acid House esthetic of doing electronic music not from the point of view of disco but from the more arresting realms of rock. A Jimi Hendrix fan, he is a direct influence on the electronics-foregrounded yet Iggy Pop-backgrounded work of Underworld, for example. He enjoyed commercial successes in the late 80’s remixing singles by Sting and Belinda Carlisle, and has lately emerged, skulking around L.A. in all black, as the Grammy-winning producer of Ray of Light , Madonna’s multi-platinum vision of electronic pop as the spiritualized province of beautifully well-adjusted young mothers.
Mr. Orbit had a few unconventional ideas, notions that anticipated the current esthetic climate of most pop music this side of Celine Dion. “I know we’re in a folk idiom,” Mr. Orbit told me in 1987, “and vocals are very important. But for hundreds of years vocals were an afterthought. Music was music, and then there was vocal music as well–sometimes. Recently, the folk idiom has translated high technology into this god which we worship called Pop, and vocals have assumed the dominant position. I’d like to see it change.”
On 13 , Blur and Mr. Orbit do their bit for music as music, doubtless to the displeasure of their fans who are Beatleheads, those adamant types who believe that even pop this side of Celine Dion ought to worship dizzy harmonics and brightly sound-staged melodies. The album builds on the immersion in noise and deceptive structural decay that characterized 1997’s Blur , the terrific album they made after deciding that the production sheen pulled off with producer Stephen Street on Parklife and 1995’s The Great Escape , although worthy of Roxy Music or Steely Dan, now seemed the wrong thing. 13 delves into shifting song shapes outlined with Mr. Coxon’s guitar outbursts, often plunging Mr. Albarn’s vocals underwater in the mixes. “I go out in the city,” he sings, adapting the point of view of a sex offender in the Stooges-like rave-up “Bugman,” hastening to add, “I stay away from the birds.” “Coffee & TV” opens with the question “Do you feel like a chain store?” Mr. Albarn, singing to pretty high-speed metallic-etched jangles, then asks someone to “take me away from this big bad world and agree to marry me,” worries about country life and admits to watching so much TV he’s going blind and is “brain-dead, virtually.”
The loose narrative sequence then turns inward for a few texture-rich, playful, improvisational-minded songs like “1992” and “Battle,” which hint at Mr. Orbit’s electronicism. The album snaps to again with “Mellow Song,” a ballad in which Mr. Albarn, his plush voice front and center, wonders “Is this where I’m going to?”; then, backed by distressed harmonies, he answers, “We’ll see, we’ll see,” before the music turns into a quasi-Arabic march. On “Trailerpark,” a self-produced marvel unto itself, the band goes electronic and rock at the same time as Mr. Albarn–emoting through this poignantly moonlit dance tune–voices the instantly classic plaint, “I’m just a country boy, I’ve got no soul, I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones.” This is followed by “Caramel,” a moody piece that ends on a fantastic surging vocal chorale à la Yes, with the singer swearing he’s “gotta get better” and “gotta stop smoking.”
13 is, after all, a creative depiction of Mr. Albarn’s busted-up heart–the result, according to many reports, of his break with longstanding girlfriend Justine Frischmann of Elastica. “I won’t kill myself,” Mr. Albarn confesses to blues strains on “No Distance Left to Run,” “trying to stay in your life.” So it makes sense that Blur would open an exhilarating album as rocking and rocky as 13 with some of the most sophisticated country music ever committed to tape. It’s a popular genre for tender hearts seeking refuge from this big bad world. Is this where Blur will end up, in their own unique country house? We’ll see.