on 26 November 2006
Reaching my adolescence in the mid-1990's, "Britpop" was obviously going to play a large part in my musical upbringing, with bands like The Auteurs, Pulp, The Divine Comedy and Blur providing the natural soundtrack for five years worth of traumatic secondary school existence, first love, lonesome nights, sexual frustration, and the all-too brief release of the weekend ahead. In hindsight, the era certainly wasn't all it's cracked up to be, with only five or six great bands to make up for a whole heap of derivative fluff. For every Blur and Oasis you had a Menswear or Gene, whilst for every Luke Haines or Jarvis Cocker, you had people like Rick Witter and Steve Cradock (who?). Blur where the band that I gravitated to first; discovering them around the time they released Parklife, but only really becoming hooked with their hugely popular fourth LP, The Great Escape.
Discovering the joys of Modern Life is Rubbish following those albums cemented my fondness for the band, which still continues (to some extent) to this day. Listening to the album again just a few minutes ago, it's amazing how fresh the songs still sound. As a result, it's perhaps a good thing that 'Modern Life...' never achieved the same kind of chart success as later albums like Parklife and The Great Escape, with the songs here still managing to sound new and invigorating; while later tracks, like Girls and Boys, Parklife, Country House and Stereotypes have become somewhat stale (the same can be said about the tracks on Morning Glory or Pulp's Different Class).
This album saw Blur moving away from the Madchester/Shoegazer influences of that flawed debut Leisure, to embrace 60's pop, 80's new-wave and American grunge; creating a nice little parallel to the genre defining debut album by The Auteurs (New Wave, released 1993), which really established the template of acoustic rhythm guitars backed by an electric lead, a competent rhythm section and embellishments of strings, horns and piano. The influences here take in everything from The Beatles, The Kinks, The Bee Gees (early stuff), The Small Faces, XTC, The House of Love, The Smiths, Syd Barrett, Nirvana, The Beach Boys, The United States of America, The Pretty Things, Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope and The Sugacubes, though individual listeners will probably find more than that lurking beneath the eclectic sonic veneer. The story goes that the band had originally wanted Andy Partridge of XTC to produce the album - which would have made sense, what with 'Modern Life...' fitting nicely alongside albums like Black Sea and English Settlement - though the record company would eventually go for the more "of-the-moment" Stephen Street (who produced the last few Smiths albums, as well as the first few by Morrissey), which again, makes a certain kind of sense given the style of the music here.
Some of the songs are fast, brash, agitated rockers, whilst others are slower, more down-tempo affairs backed by piano and mild-orchestration. As with most Blur albums, the stylistic diversity could be seen as being indicative of the future solo or collaborative works of the principle band members, with singer Damon Albarn favouring 60's and 70's influences pop, with catchy choruses and danceable hooks, guitarist Graham Coxon going for the more stripped-down stuff that points towards acts like Syd Barrett or the American indie-rock of Pavement and Sonic Youth, and bassist Alex James brining the sense of colour and humour that would be even more up-front in his collaborations with Fat Les and Betty Boo. Dave Rowntree's drums keep the disparate influences together, creating a neat and unique fusion between the harder songs and the softer ones.
The songs here will probably be less familiar than those on the subsequent albums (or even the singles from Leisure, all of which did fairly well), though it goes without saying that the opening track, For Tomorrow, as well as tracks like Advert, Chemical World and Sunday Sunday were all prime standards for those of us who managed to see the band live during the mid-to-late 90's peak. I also think the album holds together better than the more celebrated Parklife, which was perhaps a little over-indulgent, whilst it also doesn't suffer from the over-stuffing of material that The Great Escape had (a lot of bands from this era used the compact disk to it's fullest, packing it with 60 minutes worth of material when 40 would have been enough... see Pulp's This is Hardcore for a prime example).
Modern Life is Rubbish is a fine pop album, filled with a great variety of iconic pop and rock songs and peppered with a clutch of interesting and intelligent musical arrangements. It doesn't suffer from the self-awareness of the more familiar Parklife, or the stale excess of the otherwise great The Great Escape, and instead, offers a wonderful sense of colour, variety and sound. Britpop might have been a vague and obnoxiously London-centric catch-all created by record company execs to lump together a bunch of would-be mods and rockers... but some of those albums still stand up!! Modern Life is Rubbish really stands shoulder to shoulder with fine albums like New Wave, Suede, At the Club, Promenade, Now I'm a Cowboy, Different Class and Six as an example of music that still works regardless of trends and labels. The first great Blur album, and perhaps their best?