Take anyone’s list of the greatest records of the ‘90s, and it probably will not include Blur’s 13. For good reasons --13 didn’t change rock ‘n’ roll as some of the other releases of its period did, but it is an album so soulful and touching that it deserves a rightful place on the mantle.
A product primarily stemming out of Damon Albarn’s heartbreak, it is extraordinary that an album so lyrically direct and heartwrenching doesn’t ever get preachy or melodramatic. As a band known for its quirkiness, Blur effectively neutralizes any sense of self-pity that might arise from its bemoaning lyrics (of which there are plenty) with well-executed whimsicality.
The brilliant single “Coffee & TV” (with an adorable video, giving a whole new meaning to finding missing persons on the back of milk cartons) looks at its sad-sack lyrics (“Your ears are full, but you’re empty holding out your heart to people who never really care how you are”) with a sense of dry sarcasm, hence giving them some dignity. Meanwhile, the wearied vocals share none of the pain that the lyrics are trying to portray. Similarly, the gospel-tinged “Tender,” a song that aches with pain and deepest yearning, brims with a healing energy with its chanting chorus, lightening the burden of the blues.
From heartbreak to depression, as the album relives the travails of a lovelorn heart on “Caramel,” its words, even in the most simplistic sense (“I gotta get over…I gotta find genius; I gotta get better; I gotta stop smoking”) are heavy. However, the poignantly hushed music and Albarn’s apathetic tone portray the self-pitying indifference of the song perfectly, without any hint of emotional baggage.
For the obvious emotional weightiness of 13, Blur doesn’t use this record as a vehicle to squall over tragedy. The angst and sadness of loss are transformed by the band into beautiful, psychedelic pieces that are no doubt long, tedious, and slow (something unprecedented for a Blur album), but have a sonic depth that’s rich and refreshingly imaginative.
The one time when Albarn comes close to being sentimental is on “No Distance Left To Run,” where he really lets the pain sneak out in his singing. But this is a song that is so open and honest that it could well be a goodbye letter from a lover that has lost everything the moment his love walked away. And it’s exactly Albarn’s vulnerability that gives the song an authenticity and a deep personal connection.
13 is a concept album. But even though saying so assumes some degree of experimentation, the sheer amount of effort that has gone into it is phenomenal. However, the kind of experimentation that Blur had indulged in on previous records, like playing around with different music genres, is not what characterizes 13. This is an album of sounds -- not just different weird types of sounds, but how the very concept of sound shapes its music. Vocals and music are numbed, muted, made unrecognizably surreal; it’s not as dramatic as Radiohead, but pretty close.
Concept records are rarely as openly introspective as 13. Even though the album doesn’t get drowned in its own grief, there is great melancholy to it that is hard to ignore. But the album ultimately heals in the most sincere manner -- this is Blur’s Taj Mahal, meant for all of us enjoy.