on 5 July 2009
On the disappointing 13, we witness a radical change of direction (or maybe it's just the logical consequence of Blur?). Blur trades in Stephen Street for well-respected studio wizard William Orbit, records parts (or more) of the album in Iceland and deliver an album that's as easy to take as the smash of a bowling ball against your head. Now, I haven't got anything against wilfully difficult albums, against statements that defy the rules of the game and only aim at expressing direct and unpolished emotion, and Blur hàd reached a point where they basically could release anything. On the other hand, I can't be forced to like it. Not when there's no pay-off, not when you get so little in return. I understand it's THEIR statement and that the audience is also required to make an effort (isn't art about participation, anyway?), to think and - if the album allows it - to figure out an interpretation, but when, after repeated listenings, I don't feel any satisfaction whatsoever, I know there's something wrong. With me or with the album, or the connection between us. I'm usually not the first to toot my own horn (that's what I like to think, at least), but I think I can recognize a stinker when I encounter one and 13 comes close, dangerously close.
It is certainly a great candidate if it weren't for the few stand-out tracks (such as the first two singles, "Tender" and "Coffee & TV") that rescue it from a trip to the second hand store. I already hear you coming: "Look at silly Guy there, a man enough to take the singles, but he can't deal with the remainder of the album!" Well yeah, but if they wanted to surprise to listener, why not immediately release "D.U.L.L.E.M.I." or "Caramel" as singles? They probably knew the singles they did choose were the best songs. The album as a whole may have a huge personal significance for the band and most of their fans, but when I feel as if I've wasted my time, it's a failure in my book. "Tender" is pretty good, though. Long, but a successful experiment, it's some sort of gospel song (with the London Community Gospel Choir on backing vocals) that benefits from a nearly seductive and lazy rhythm and of course Coxon's endearing vocals ("Oh my baby, oh my baby") are a nice touch as well. Even better is Coxon's own "Coffee & TV," a track that used to remind me of Sonic Youth's "Sunday" for a few seconds, but soon settles in its own groove, boasts an excellent chorus and an extended fade-out that's wholly digestible. As for the remainder of the album, you could divide it into low-key ballads and ambient stuff on the one hand and stuff that's more of an abrasive nature on the other. "Abrasive," because during songs like "Bugman" and "B.L.U.R.E.M.I." all the meters seem to go in the red. A ragged guitar sound is not enough, no sir, they have to sound like the professional Black & Decker-series, and while the former song starts off quite well, it's the completely superfluous noise that ruins the pleasure. The same goes for "E.M.I.": after a few seconds you'll probably think it's quite OK, but repeated listens only made me wonder "What's the friggin' POINT?"
To be sure the audience realizes the band is pissed off and insists on total freedom, it also inserts layers of guitar noise in the calmer ambient songs. "1992," a song about being defeated, I presume ("You took the other one instead"), sounds like an inferior and noisier rehashing of Leisure's "Sing," while "Battle," which would've fitted nicely on the Requiem for a Dream-soundtrack, ends similarly in the wake of white noise. "E.M.I." and "Battle" are only the start of a frustratingly weak middle section. There's also "Caramel," a lengthy dirge quite close to post-rock, a genre that also gets its main appeal from subtle modifications and shifts and usually works towards one or more climaxes after which the tension usually disappears again, but here's it's just an uneventful drag that wallows in its own self-importance. Apart from those songs, there are also the tedious acoustic-song-goes-ambient of "Mellow Song" (with "Cos I lift my Street/I'm a guillotine" as an obvious reference to ditching Stephen Street as their long-time producer) and "Trailerpark," the result of the band's uninspired trip to Bristol. Like I said, there's some better stuff near the end of the album. Although it would have been a misfire on Blur, "Trimm Trabb" is nothing less than a masterpiece compared to the previous songs, a fairly simple and hypnotic track that hints at lazy dance but never takes the plunge. Third single and last memorable track is "No Distance Left to Run", a last rumination on a lost love (Justine Frischmann, I presume), and it's a nice one, nearly devoid of the self-indulgence that mars so many of the other tracks. So, there you have it, my heartless take on 13. Maybe I'm just wrong, maybe I just don't get it (because it seems so beloved by many people nowadays, especially by the band's hardcore fans), but it's a fact that this 66-minute statement doesn't sound particularly impressive to my ears. I just wish they'd used some more good ideas, instead of focusing on their worst ones and milking them so passionately.
Note: The nice cover painting was made by Coxon.