Blur – Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993)

Released in 1993, Modern Life Is Rubbish was Britpop band Blur’s second studio album. As a release it was the moment they began to move away from the baggy-influenced shoegazing style that they had explored on their debut album, towards the Britpop sound that would make them one of the biggest bands in the UK during the mid-90s. This album musically speaking in many ways was a homage to classic British 60s pop, with bands such as The Kinks and Small Faces having a significant influence on the material of this album both lyrically and musically. The change in musical direction was brought about by singer-songwriter Damon Albarn who had decided to go down a more melodic pop route, this after the bands disastrous 1992 tour of America. This change can largely be put down to Albarn’s experiences on this tour which left him dismayed by American audiences, in particular their interest in grunge and often hectic behaviour at gigs. The result of this was a feeling of dislike towards everything American within the band especially Albarn and in turn produced a greater love of England and everything English, something which would heavily influence the recording of Modern Life Is Rubbish.

Musically the sound of Modern Life Is Rubbish is by in large guitar based pop in the style of bands such as The Who, The Jam, and as I have already mentioned The Kinks and Small Faces. The band draw on a variety of different styles on this album in what is an eclectic mix of punk rock “Advert”, psychedelic rock “Chemical World”, 60s pop “For Tomorrow” and even English vaudevillian music hall “Sunday Sunday”. Although the band were moving in a different direction musically from their debut album, an alternative rock/shoegazing influence still exists on several tracks especially in the guitar playing of Graham Coxon. One such example was the experimental guitar driven track “Oily Water” with its layered psychedelic guitar drawing comparisons to bands such as My Bloody Valentine and Ride. Coxon’s playing is a definite standout on this album especially with his use of delay, reverb and distortion in creating a heavily layered sound which dominates many of the tracks on the album. His playing on this record shows why he is one of the best guitarists to ever come out of the British indie scene and how he is more than just a guitar player, but also a composer and inventor on the six-string. The band also experimented with different sounds on this album, sounds that were outside of the traditional rock band model. A woodwind section can be heard on “Star Shaped”, while brass comes to dominate “Sunday Sunday”. Vocally the band also experiment, with Small Faces-like choruses of la, la, la’s and Damon Albarn even singing in a fake cockney accent on some tracks, something that definitely contributed to the overall Englishness of the album.   

Damon Albarn’s desire to create an English influenced record comes to the fore more through the lyrics of the songs than the music. And although the music is a vital cog in this overall thematic concept, the songs on this album are in many ways little stories of contemporary English life based on Albarn’s own experiences, as well as what he perceives to be as traditional England.  With his song writing on this album, Albarn draws on the likes of Ray Davies, Steve Marriott and Paul Weller for influence as he gives a social commentary and often humorous take on 90s England suburbia, celebrating middle class existence as well as disdaining it. There’s the track “Colin Zeal” which is a humorous take on a London office worker called Colin Zeal. This is a man “who knows the value of mass appeal [while] “keeping his eye on the news and his future in hand”. And then there is the track “Sunday Sunday”, a song about traditional English Sunday activities such as having a roast and walking in the park. These are just two examples from the album where Albarn does a fantastic job with his lyrics in painting pictures for the listener of English life in a way which is not to dissimilar to what Ray Davies did on The Kinks seminal album The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.

On its release Modern Life Is Rubbish was a modest chart success despite being lauded by critics as the album that helped to usher in Britpop in the UK. Despite not being an overwhelming smash, Modern Life Is Rubbish was significant in rejuvenating the band after their failure in America and helped also to set the tone for what would become their decade defining album and smash-hit Parklife the following year. The overall concept of celebrating England and Englishness was a good one for the band to explore and it definitely lent itself well to the majority of the material on the album. My only major criticism would be around the length of the album which I feel would have benefited strongly from being trimmed a little bit as it tends to lag on the second half and probably runs for two too many songs, but this is just a minor aberration more than anything. Overall though Modern Life Is Rubbish is a great 90s album and one of Blur’s best. I thoroughly recommend it to those into British indie, Britpop, or simply those who are looking for 90s nostalgia.  

B+

– Sam


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