The Best of Blur
VIRGIN RECORDS HAS taken a small risk. They're wagering on the hope that a certain type of Blur fan, neither the obsessed cultist who owns each import single nor the Napster trawler who liked that one "woo-hoo" song that one summer, actually exists in these United States. As an arty Britpop band with no stateside chart action, Blur first garnered their American fan base with impeccably rendered pop that wore the baggy trousers of early Nineties Manchester rave without actually staying up all night. The band's self-conscious early singles, such as the coiled "There's No Other Way," indicated that even though Blur were trying to sound partial to E-guzzling, they knew their grades might suffer if they really did. Wisely, the band heard the sirens breaking up the Madchester party, and Blur put away the pacifiers to get hip to some new trends.
But Blur had a knack for choosing trends that weren't particularly trendy. The arch, XTC-fueled "For Tomorrow" sounded out-of-synch enough that the song's opening line, "He's a 20th-century boy," seemed to come from a 20th Century different from the one the rest of us were living in. Yet the further out they wandered, the better Blur sounded; 1994's classic Parklife (SBK) was a confident, Kinks-inspired concept record that showcased the band's sharpest writing and best playing to date. The lovely "End of a Century" revisited the passing of time with the shrugged resignation of a lover overly comfortable with sharing space in bed, and the title track's Cockney recitations gave authentic voice to the experience of feeding pigeons and drinking tea. Catchiest of all was the bubbly synth-smack of "Girls and Boys," which proved that Blur were better at taking the piss out of rave culture than trying to ape it.
Bloodied by then-bigger-than-God Oasis in a highly publicized pop rivalry fueled by the copy-hungry U.K. music press, Blur stumbled on The Great Escape (Virgin) the band's only serious misstep. Freed from that lifeless CD, however, the singles shine as brightly on The Best Of as any other tracks. In particular, the hilarious "Charmless Man" cracks a self-depreciating smirk outside of its original context. Blur accidentally stumbled onto the four chords of a tune so throwaway that the band barely even named it. "Song 2" became the huge U.S. radio hit Blur had always wanted, but it was also the band's unfortunate ticket to one-hit wonderland, tapped to sell everything from microchips to the alien-bug epic Starship Troopers.
After finally getting a taste, Blur veered away from their brush with Billboard and began writing longer, spacier, and looser songs. The "Hey Jude"-style song-as-coda of "Tender," from 1999's 13 (Virgin), and the downbeat brushstick workout of the only new song here, "Music Is My Radar," are both evidence that Blur still have the ambition and ability to change over time, though not necessarily with the times.