Though largely under appreciated in the States for much of its career, British rock quartet Blur was one of the biggest and most versatile bands the UK, produced in the 1990s and into the current decade before going on hiatus in 2003. With seven studio albums to its name over a 12-year span, plus a best-of album that was released three years before its last LP, 2003s Think Tank, there has yet to be a compilation that encompasses highlights from all of Blur’s works. Until now.
The Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide To Blur (Capitol/EMI) collection, which hit stores during the heart of summer in late July, features 25 tracks spread over two discs. It contains most of the usual hot tracks that put Blur on the map, including “Girls And Boys,” “Song 2” and “She’s So High.” But the band members themselves selected the tracks for both discs. Thus, there are some serious gems here, but in a couple places, curious choices as well.
Not so unpredictably, CD 1 starts out with the opening track from Blur’s most popular – at least here in America – self-titled 1997 album, “Beetlebum.” Graham Coxon’s zigzag guitars carry the core of this easygoing pop song that also has musical refrains and chord progressions underneath singer Damon Albarn’s falsetto that are not too different stylistically from British rivals Oasis.
Of course, there’s no mistaking these two seminal groups – Blur was the more consistent and musically adventurous force. One need not look any further than the inventive (and lyrically regret-filled) “Death Of A Party,” another ’97 self-titled album essential track on CD 1 to prove this point. It features some of the leanest and meanest Coxon guitar sounds in Blur’s catalogue. And its scary-to-bright melodies – the verses being spooky and choruses more pleasant-sounding – go back and forth like they were always meant to be together. It’s bloody brilliant, as British lads might say.
There really is no apparent chronological sequence to the tracklisting of both discs, but again, plenty of variety of sound. So on CD 1, you’ll hear the noisy “Bugman” (from the 13 LP) after hard-chargin’ sports stadium smash (1997) hit “Song 2,” both of which come after the lovey-dovey “Blue Jeans.” And, the near disco-dance pop of (1994 album) Parklife standout “Girls & Boys” comes right after “Beetlebum.” Elsewhere, the celebratory and horns-filled (1995 album) Great Escape single “The Universal” appears directly after “Death Of A Party,” and the early shoegaze-ish sounds of (debut 1991 album) Leisure track “Sing” appears near disc’s end.
The gospel/soul pop of (1999 album) 13’s lead single “Tender” leads off Midlife CD 2, and is followed by the only other Leisure track on the compilation, the dreamy guitar pop of “She’s So High.” The once out-of-print 1992 single “Popscene,” which later made its way onto the 1993 album Modern Life Is Rubbish, also appears on CD 2, along with excellent choices like the electric/acoustic straight out rocker “Chemical World” and “Advert” from that same record.
In fact, if you count “Popscene,” five tracks from Modern Life appear on Midlife. Four tracks each from Parklife, Blur’s self-titled 1997 CD and follow-up 13 album are included, along with three each from The Great Escape and final album Think Tank, and two from Leisure.
Aside from its non-chronological track list, this new compilation has a couple of minor flaws worth noting. First of all, most of the selections are either no-brainers or smart choices by the band. But given the fact that Blur released a best-of in 2000 that featured 18 studio tracks – 10 of which are repeated on the new disc – plus 10 more live ones, at 25 tracks, Midlife could have used a few more tracks, deep album cuts in particular, like “Jubilee” or the exotic punk rockish “We’ve Got A File On You.”
Also, though it may mean something to the band (which also includes bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree), I don’t think most fans would view “Strange News From Another Star,” from the ’97 CD, as an essential Blur song. And though “Battery In Your Leg” has memorable dark and Cocteau Twins-esque guitar lines, Blur could’ve chosen somewhere else for it other than ending CD 2. Perhaps the loud ‘n’ fast guitar licks of ’97 self-titled standout “M.O.R.” could’ve both substituted for “Strange News” and closed this compilation out with a bang.
Alas, as the title of this collection suggests, Midlife is only an introduction to Blur. It is most likely geared towards newer fans who know Damon Albarn mainly from his post-Blur group Gorillaz, and perhaps for those only vaguely familiar with the Blur catalogue – which probably includes Gorillaz fans as well. Its release coincides with the band’s short-lived reunion tour, which took place over the summer, with shows in native England, Ireland and Scotland in June and July.
The band may or may not tour or record again anytime soon and go on another extended hiatus, but in the meantime, if you need a comprehensive course on Blur’s rich library of music, Midlife is the right two-disc collection for you, either on its own or as a complement to its best-of release from nine years ago.