Blur was never huge in the U.S. Even the British group's best-known song (the two-minute explosion "Song 2") failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100. So the moment the group is having right now might be confusing for casual listeners. Blur has reunited in recent years to play live (it'll headline the closing ceremony of the Olympics this weekend) and release a few new songs (last month's "Under the Westway" is lovely). Last week, the band put out a career-spanning box set.
Even for fans, the giant Blur 21 box — 21 because it's the 21st anniversary of the band's first album, but also because it includes 21 discs, with 282 tracks, a hardcover book and hours of unreleased material and concert footage within a lovely blue cloth-wrapped cube — offers a huge amount to try and digest. Blur was a band that tried out lots of ideas, often within one song. Part of the fun of a box like this is trying to take in as much as you can, to see how the internal balance shifts. I've been listening to almost nothing but Blur 21 for the last week, and it's made me re-evaluate the ideas I have about the band a few times every day.
In almost every song Blur made, you can hear how the band reaches backwards and forwards through the rest of its catalog. The epic "The Universal" echoes the patience of the early "Sing" and precedes the gospel-inflected "Tender." If the guitar-driven "Song 2" walked a perfect line between knowing, alcohol-soaked shout-along and pandering punk, the earlier "Bank Holiday" veered hard to the former side, while the later "Crazy Beat" stumbled badly over the latter.
"Death of a Party" isn't one of Blur's hits, but because Blur 21 contains two versions, you can hear the band's evolution play out over a single song.
The earlier recording, from a disc of rarities that dates back to 1993, is rough and slightly mopey. The song, built around the idea of giving life to the depressive joke of the title (if you're not the life of the party...?), includes the chorus, "Another night / and I thought well, well / Go to another party / and hang myself / gently on the shelf," which would be cringe-inducing if the melody weren't so sweet. The Stone Roses and The Kinks were the bands to which Blur was most often compared, but those words, and the acoustic guitar, reveal the influence of The Smiths.
The later version, which was released on the 1997 album Blur, might be the perfect example of the chemistry among the band's four members, which was always about forcing different sounds into coexistence rather than cooperation. Graham Coxon's buzzing, squawking guitar takes a front seat; Alex James' bass line provides both driving force and sludgy resistance; Dave Rowntree's drums sound like wet cardboard left out to dry in the sun; and where Damon Albarn sounded like a dispassionate narrator in the early version, he sings like a broken man here.
Blur changed its sound often; neither version of "Death of a Party" sounds like the "Britpop" the band helped make famous, but there are hints here of the scraping darkness it would indulge on its next album, 13, and the grooves of the swan song Think Tank. Even if the constant change means that the members of Blur never forged a signature sound, there's still no other band who sounded like them.