It may not surface in a Nike ad anytime soon, but Blur’s new single, “Tender,” is the real bittersweet symphony. Floating in on a brittle folksy twang, given maximum Appalachian resonance by guitarist Graham Coxon, it evolves into a gospelized eight-minute elegy, somewhere between a hymn and hoedown. Throughout, singer Damon Albarn tosses off self-help bromides (“Come on, come on, come on/Get through it”), and at first it makes you cringe. What gets to you is how he’s singing— wistful but direct, veering off into helpless falsetto, more sincere and urgent than ever before. “Tender is the touch,” he cautions, “of someone that you love too much,” and it’s all too clear he means tender as in bruised. Killer moment: as the choir chimes in, Albarn’s voice abruptly dips, and an improbably rich, goosepimply baritone delivers the song’s cruel punch line: “Love’s the greatest thing.”
It’s a loaded sentiment in the context of Blur’s new album, 13, which has been widely presold as Albarn’s breakup album (he and Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann ended their eight-year relationship last year). And context counts double with this band, always Britpop’s savviest and most emblematic players. Sure, Oasis exemplified yob rock, but Blur, a concept band that made and still make concept albums, were largely responsible for perpetuating ’90s Britpop’s stubborn insularity. Yet it was partly thanks to Blur and their natural bent for pushing too far too fast that Britpop devolved into farce.
On balance, Blur have always been easy to like— tuneful, thoughtful, boy-band cute, and just perverse enough to be interesting. You could begrudge them their upper-middle-class art-school background— they were the ones who wanted to live like common people, or at least write affectionately mocking songs about them— but Damon wore his wiseass pretensions with disarming pride. Still, even he must have known his reflexive cleverness was a dead end— what do you do for an encore after you’ve rhymed Balzac with Prozac?
Their last album, 1997’s Blur, was widely interpreted as ground zero for Blur Mk II, part calculated bid for the U.S. alt-rock market, part genuine attempt at atonement for all those chirpy, knees-up, music-hall piss-takes. But gnarled and lo-fi as it was, the album came off like a studied pastiche. 13 is a far less forced sort of reinvention: it’s their first response to a real-life crisis (not just the Damon-Justine situation, but souring intraband relationships), where in the past their gear-shifting has mostly been solipsistic, in reaction to their own back catalogue, or to the vagaries of a popscene they helped define.
Having effectively renounced almost all their pre-Blur material, Blur’s options at last Tuesday’s Roseland show, billed as their only New York appearance of the year, were severely limited. In another potentially alienating move, they played 13 in its entirety, and in order. A sense of ritual clung to the set, which, drained of all suspense, was mainly about a need to, well, “get through it.” They say they won’t be touring 13 extensively— a reasonable decision. It may be the nature of breakup songs that they don’t hold up well, not for the person who wrote them anyway.
There was a certain logic in preserving the track listing. 13 isn’t overarchingly conceptual, but it has its own particular trajectory. Unmistakably a coming-to-terms record, it opens with “Tender” (declamation, or maybe denial) then coughs up a couple of sputtering fuzz-blanketed freakouts (distraction, and more denial, perhaps) before settling into resigned, deceptively becalmed mode for the second half.
Somewhat free-form yet amazingly textured, 13 is supposedly a jam session that superproducer William Orbit layered and edited into shape in the studio. Live, necessarily forsaking Orbit’s detail-oriented approach, Blur attacked the new songs head-on. “Tender,” despite spirited spiritualizing from the Harlem Boys Choir, was a letdown, with Albarn lapsing into bad evangelical shtick. Coxon ensured that the hard-rocking songs, especially the glam explosion “Bugman,” were more muscular and to-the-point than on the album. But slower songs depended on the problematic replication of musique concrète.
Tuesday’s encores— including two 1992 favorites, the baggy classic “There’s No Other Way” and the flailing Ritalin-rock of “Popscene”— proved how much fun Blur can still be when they let themselves. Relatively sedate and polite till then, Damon finally unleashed his demented, thrashing Iggy-isms. With the opening drumbeats of “Song 2” (still miraculously unblemished by its numerous brand-name associations, from Intel to the NHL to Starship Troopers), the crowd went ballistic. And really, could you blame them for preferring the woo-hoo to the boo-hoo?