Blur: 21 – review

It's a hardy soul who'll get through all 21 discs, but Blur's complete works make for a fascinating listen

There's something oddly final about lavish CD box sets. Their completeness seems to say: "This is it." Those curious about Blur's future – already gloomy at the news that they've apparently abandoned a new album, and at the elegiac quality of their recent new song, the beautiful Under the Westway – might be forgiven for heaving a sigh at the arrival of 21, which collects virtually every note Blur have released with four CDs of stuff they previously hadn't.

Certainly, 21 is exhaustive, almost to a fault. There are great things among the B-sides and unreleased tracks: their collaboration with Marianne Faithfull, Kissin' Time; the loose, Can-like funk of Music Is My Radar. Still, it's a hardy soul who makes it all the way through, say, the version of She's So High that consists of the two-line chorus repeated in a strangulated yodel for 11 minutes, punctuated by slap bass, or the three versions of Red Necks, a grindingly unfunny joke country track from the CD single of End of the Century. Unlike their great Britpop rivals, Blur audibly weren't in the business of squandering the good stuff on B-sides.

Indeed, you could argue it's a hardy soul who makes it through their debut album, Leisure. Listen closely and you can tell something was up: mercifully stripped of its slap bass and yodeling, She's So High conjures up a Syd Barrett-inspired mood of eerie wooziness that Blur would often return to, while Sing's cocktail of pounding piano and sprawling guitar noise sounds like nothing else. But it's hard to make out amid the sound of a band frantically trying on other people's styles, and Albarn nearly rupturing himself in the pursuit of doe-eyed, slack-jawed sexiness.

There's little to explain how they got from there to 1993's fantastic Modern Life Is Rubbish, beyond the snottily purposeful single Popscene. Anyone excited to hear the band's abandoned sessions with XTC's Andy Partridge might be disappointed to learn they sound exactly as you would expect the newly Anglocentric Blur being produced by Andy Partridge to sound: like the XTC of An Everyday Story of Smalltown or Ball and Chain.

A new focus and songwriting ability seems to have arrived like a thunderbolt: one minute they were churning out filler like Fool and High Cool, the next they were coming up with Blue Jeans and Turn It Up. By the time of Parklife, they seemed unstoppable. What's striking now is how diverse it sounds, and, the title track aside, how unlike a period piece: the disco pulse and spiky guitars of Girls and Boys are the post-punk revival a decade early; End of a Century and This Is a Low are the kind of songs that are built to transcend their era.

The real munificence of 21 only comes into its own when you reach The Great Escape, from 1995. Listening to it now is bizarre: it sounds like the work of a band who can't decide whether to court or confound the audience. At its best – on He Thought of Cars and Best Days – it sounds weary and wary and introverted. At its worst, it's almost unbearably horrible, a queasy stew of falsetto backing vocals, have-a-banana oompah and lyrics that don't so much sneer at the working classes as sneer at everybody. You could almost take it as a wilfully grotesque screw-you, a knowing parody of what Blur's detractors thought Parklife sounded like, were it not for the fact it seems so self-conscious and joyless. But there's another album lurking in the B-sides, scrappy and troubled and infinitely more appealing: Tame, St Louis and The Man Who Left Himself sound closer to The Great Escape's eponymous successor than the album they're appended to.

At the time, Blur's musical shift towards the distorted and lo-fi was held to be the work of Graham Coxon, but it seems to have as much to do with Albarn temporarily falling out of love with London, whose inhabitants – according to Alex James in John Harris' book The Last Party – were only too happy to remind him that they'd backed Oasis in the Battle of Britpop. It might have been a sad situation, but it proved to be Blur's salvation. For one thing, there would be no more have-a-banana oompah but, more importantly, the band on Blur sound alive, crackling with ideas and possibilities. The next album, 1999's 13, is even better. Fragmented and strange, full of lambent melodies that occasionally vanish amid hails of guitar noise, it suggested a band falling apart even as they advanced towards new horizons: Trailerpark sounds like Gorillaz having a nervous breakdown.

Blur seemed on the verge of collapse in 1999, and that's ultimately where they've stayed ever since. Bookended by the gorgeous single Out of Time and the remarkable, anguished Battery in Your Leg – the solitary track to which Coxon contributed before being asked to leave – 2003's Think Tank had its moments, but largely served to prove that Blur didn't really work as an umbrella for Albarn's increasingly diverse musical interests, and it's hard to imagine their frontman's attention resting in one place long enough to complete another album. Still, if 21 represents all there is or is ever going to be, it's hard not to be hugely impressed. As sarcophagi go, it's a spectacularly well-appointed one.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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