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on 5 July 2009
Whereas the release of Parklife was still a bit overshadowed by the death of a certain Kurt Cobain, the band's prominence during the next year ensured Blur would get all the attention with the release of its 1995 album The Great Escape. Oh yeah, how could I forget: there was the whole overblown Blur-Oasis feud that was so ridiculous it must have been a set-up (and did they really have that much in common?). Well, the one good thing it led to was that the album sales got a boost and that's always a good thing. People like Robbie Williams make a living because of events like that. Anyway this review is about the long-awaited sequel to Parklife, but come to think of it, the whole superficial nonsense surrounding the new album was fitting. On many levels, The Great Escape was treated as a decent sequel, but a few listens made sure you'd alter that view. If anything, this album is the less commercial, less lightweight and less optimistic (well, the previous one does sound optimistic compared to this one) counterpart of Parklife. Even more so: from the album art, to the lyrics, to the purposely more detached music, it's a release that's obsessed with appearances.
While those who weren't paying attention thought of it as another jolly album, most people did smell the rotten core beneath the shiny surface (cf. the last page of the booklet). Well, "rotten" may be an exaggeration, but the lives that are depicted during these songs are utterly devoid of content and genuine emotions. "Stereotypes" evokes the introduction to David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a world where everything seems perfect, too perfect, uncomfortably perfect. And the protagonists? Well, they have to get their kicks out of naughty games. Quite similar to the mechanic jerk-pop of "Stereotypes" are "Ernold Same" (musically, one of the least interesting songs), a portrait of catatonia, and the Specials-influenced "Fade Away," whose protagonists happened to stumble into their lives, hollow inside. Of course, Albarn's antipathy towards America made sure he created some decidedly English (British?) stories, such as "Country House" and "Charmless Man." Both of these songs are probably the reason why many people thought of The Great Escape as a sequel. Nearly as catchy as the bouncy stuff on Parklife, they combine the more traditional song-writing skills of Ray Davies (a merger of Face to Face's infectiousness and Arthur's seriousness) with the sounds and ideas of the nineties, with especially Coxon coming off as particularly inventive (I should dedicate an extra paragraph to his underrated skills, but I'll pass on the honour to the specialists). The charmless man knows his Claret from his Beaujolais and pretends he's notorious gangster Ronnie Kray, but ultimately, "no one's listening," while the professional cynic in "Country House" (allegedly based on some guy they'd worked with) is doomed to be lonely. Interesting side-note here: there's also a reference to Oasis' second album, with "Now he's got morning glory, life's a different story" (or is it the other way around, can somebody tell me?).
Anyway, during these songs, the pitiable characters are wallowing in their empty existence, or dreaming of escaping their dreary lives, like in "It Could Be You" (about the lottery - "Don't worry if it's not your lucky number, because tomorrow there is another"), "He Thought of Cars" (actually a quite darker and more interesting song than the title suggests) and "The Universal" ("Tomorrow is your lucky day") that aims for the heights of "This Is a Low," and nearly makes it. Interestingly (to me, that is), two of my favorite songs on this album are ones that hardly anyone ever mentions. The first is the silly "Top Man" that has "Julian Cope" all over it in capital letters (that's probably why then - isn't Cope the greatest of all British eccentrics?), the second is the danceable "Entertain Me" that's a fitting addition to this album, with it's near-robotic rhythms, phoned-in vocals (and Albarn does sound a lot like Mark E. Smith here!), and typical Blur-chorus. I've also grown quite fond of the weird ballad "Yuko and Hiro," while "Globe Alone" once again proves the band is quite good at making Casio-punk. Despite some weaker songs ("Ernold Same," the tough but sub-standard "Mr. Robinson's Quango" and "Dan Abnormal" (it's an anagram - remember Dan Abnormal also appeared on Elastica's debut?)), The Great Escape doesn't deserve the bad reputation (well, that's my impression) it has today. OK, it was an overproduced album, but I consider that a part of the package. At this point, they had painted themselves into a corner (and luckily their next direction would be something entirely different), but inside this overlong and quite uneven release, there lurks another excellent 40-minute album.