This feature originally ran in April 2015 and is being re-published ahead of Gorillaz’s new album, Humanz.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Art is subjective. Music and movies aren’t about competition; they’re about artistic expression. Well, for those of you who know better than to believe those lies, welcome to another installment of Vs. This time, we definitively determine where Damon Albarn truly belongs.
Damon Albarn is one of those rare artists in popular music whose cultural stock must be measured across multiple projects. Along with Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree, and Alex James, Albarn helped steer Britpop in a more artful, angular direction as a member of Blur, a band that stands as one of the most respected and innovative bands of the ’90s. Blur went dark after the release of 2003’s Think Tank, but Albarn had already successfully reapplied his sophisticated pop sense to Gorillaz, which pushed Blur‘s art rock flair into the realm of full-on pop art. Along with artist and co-creator Jamie Hewlett, Gorillaz threw pop, dub, hip-hop, and electronic music into a flavorful pot, hiding behind the guise of a group of motley cartoon characters.
With two iconic bands spanning two decades, it’s only fitting that we pick nits and decide which of these influential but very different Albarn projects is best. This is Blur vs. Gorillaz.
Ryan Bray (RB): I’ll come out and say this right off the top: If we’re picking sides, I’m a Blur guy. This reflects little at all on Gorillaz. It’s just that I came to Blur first. As an impressionable eighth grader, my musical tastes were still budding when I heard “Song 2”. I knew Blur by name at that point but hadn’t done my homework, and as such, the brisk but catchy “Song 2” became my first proper introduction to the band when it blew up in 1997.
But as is the case with a lot of breakthrough singles, “Song 2” didn’t really serve as an apt representation of what Blur was all about. Still, I liked the band’s self-titled record enough to backtrack my way through Parklife, Modern Life Is Rubbish, and The Great Escape. Slowly but surely, my appreciation for the band grew. I was impressed by the way the band could shape-shift its way through a myriad of similar but different pop rock sounds without straying too far from themselves. Some songs like “She’s So High” were straightforward in their catchiness, while others were jerky and kind of obtuse (“Girls & Boys” is a classic example).
But their cleverness and inventiveness was hard to ignore. As much as the media tried its best to hype up the Battle of Britpop between Blur and Oasis, to me it never felt like much of a competition. I’ve yet to hear the Gallagher brothers, with all of their talk, pen anything that rivals Albarn and Coxon’s gift for highbrow pop rock.
Lior Phillips (LP): Oh Queen Britannia and her Royal Media Fuckery! Good starting point, Ryan. Those Brits are always raising ‘brows. I must say that this particular mid-’90s press incident (NME cover + Brit awards) was impeccably timed. No one was ready to move on from grunge, so they feasted on the spirit of it in a way one would expect a pop band would: Liam throwing word-punches (“Shite-life!” ) and Albarn spewing soiled lyrics (“Now he’s got morning glory/ Life’s a different story”). They fashioned their Brit-flags like capes, tackling the pains of zeitgeist lyrically while becoming the unelected mouthpiece for the pint-drinking middle class.
At one stage, Oasis and Blur were as big (or even bigger) than Nirvana/Pearl Jam for us South Africans. I gorged on them through Now That’s What I Call Music compilations, because shipping costs were so astronomical we could only afford one CD with lots of different artists’ best singles crammed onto it. Fortunately for me, this happened right about the time when you kept listening to albums you bought even if they disappointed you. Blur always fit in with the other artists because they made pop that was a little off-center (“Threadneedle Street”, an old B-side, is a good example), fitting well alongside R&B music – both pop and soul versions like Brenda Fasie, Yvonne Chaka Chaka, and local rock bands like Springbok Nude Girls. There I was mid-headbanging, singing the wrong lyrics with a mouth full of metal to match my teen angst! “I got my head shaved by a chomoboche!” Little did I know I was singing about middle-class British culture, which was grappling with the pitfalls of Prozac and heroine – it still felt relatable.
While I agree that “Song 2” doesn’t represent the full breadth of their ability, there is absolutely no question that it was their calling card in America. There were borders back then, quite literally, between genres and cultures. Britain had Britpop, America had grunge, but both had a sell-by date. When polymath Albarn created Gorillaz with artist Jamie Hewlett, the man with whom he shared a flat, they epitomized what it felt like to grow up in HTML chat rooms, surrounded by Winamp skins. The internet kids suddenly witnessed the world open up and genres merging. Albarn plucked ’90s idiosyncrasies and built a bridge with Gorillaz’s mash-up of genres to take us all to the other side of the ’00s. Blur progressed stylistically, sure, but they still sound like Blur; it’s impossible to imagine them repositioning themselves to fit in with the Internet era as well as Gorillaz did.
RB: Point well taken. Pop music after the Dot-com Boom definitely benefited from the wide-open platform the Internet seemed to provide. The subcategories and rampant compartmentalization that defined much of the ’90s pretty much went the way of the dinosaur after bands like Radiohead and Daft Punk, and yes, Gorillaz proved how much good could come from not looking at music through the prism of genre. That said, it’s hard not to look at Gorillaz as a perfect product of its time. And while Blur gets a lot of cred for being one of the quintessential British bands of the alternative era, you could argue that Gorillaz and Demon Days after it are much more deliberate in their love of English music. Listening to “Clint Eastwood”, it’s almost impossible not to imagine the moody gloom that hung over Massive Attack or The Specials’ “Ghost Town” like a bad omen.
As to where Blur fits into the crazed diversity that’s so far defined post-millenium pop music, we really only have a small sample to draw from. But it’s a strong one. It’s crazy to think that as strong of a record as Think Tank is, it was actually the mark of a band on its last legs. Without the services of Graham Coxon, it was easy to anticipate it being the muddled mess that it seemingly should have been on paper. But it wasn’t, and despite its relatively quiet release, for my money, it’s one of their most interesting and forward-thinking records. Would Blur stand up as well in the 2000s as it did in the ’90s if Albarn kept at it? It’s hard to say, but it’s not unreasonable to think that good or bad, their output would have still been interesting.
LP: As interesting as a tank that’s run out of steam? Crushed and exhausted from all its years being a tank? I respect your belief about that record, but 13 was blatantly their best “last release” – Coxon singing backup on heart-crushing “Tender”, lead on the near-flawless “You’re So Great”, and that video with the anthropomorphic milk carton dancing around! While the line “It’s over you don’t need to tell me” during “No Distance Left to Run” was about a relationship, it felt like an omen instead, didn’t it? But I do agree with you that their new album definitely suggests that they would have made respectfully notable music if they carried on.
Either way you swing it, music seems like a compulsion for Albarn, and the little spot he best plugs his outrageously limitless talents into is his Gorillaz moniker. When they arrived, they were pretty much already as good as they ever would be. They made us question how we consume and feel about pop music and revealed Albarn and Hewlett’s obsession with multi-cultures (his trip to Mongolia triggered darker rudiments in Demon Days; Mexican knock-off art and Japanese anime crew Studio Ghibli sparked the artwork). So wondering which one attracted more universal firepower in a seemingly unaffected and unassuming way, I gotta go with the enlivened heartbeat of Gorillaz.
We experienced a paradox of an artificial band being a lot less synthetic than fellow pop groups. They had ideas that other bands would normally dismiss as being gauche or brash. Really great bands – those-holy-mother-of-hell-my-body-is-dancing-involuntarily bands – often exist in a state of holy, reckless savantism, and in the case of Gorillaz, this is fully engaged across their most renowned singles. You’re impressed by the way Blur shape-shifted through different pop rock sounds without straying. Me too! But press play on a song like “Melancholy Hill”, which I adore for its emotional pomp emerging unexpectedly from a subtle synth line, and suddenly the reason Blur feel unable to stray is because the container they live in is more of a shoe box of the same ex’s love letters than a babushka doll producing style after style, layer within layer.
RB: I’ve said my piece on Blur, but you’re bringing up some pretty solid points on Gorillaz, so I’m ready to flip the page. The most remarkable thing to me about Gorillaz is how effortlessly Albarn manages to turn otherwise niche subgenres into the stuff of huge crossover pop fodder. If Blur was cranky and aloof, stuck in its art school ways almost to a fault, Gorillaz just soaks up everything: trip hop, hip hop, electronic music, dub, and everything in between. But really, fuck the labeling because it’s all just great pop music. Gorillaz feels liberated in a way that Blur didn’t, just this crazy project that’s hell bent on running all across the pop smorgasbord. It’s also nice to see Albarn’s crazy musical instincts applied to a project more suited to net him the mainstream adulation and recognition he so richly deserves.
The more we talk about it, the more it’s dawning on me that this Blur-Gorillaz schism isn’t fit to fall neatly into better/worse categorization. They’re really two different beasts that work in completely different ways, tethered together by a shared musical mind. My preference still stands with Blur – sorry, the guitar rock brat in me will never die – but I love the way that Gorillaz evolved from Blur to become this bigger, bolder, wildly conceptual thing that Albarn’s former band never could be. Between the two acts, Albarn has unquestionably secured himself a reputation for being one of the most unique musical minds of his generation. Maybe in the end, that’s what we’re really called to celebrate here.
Feature photo by Robert Altman.