Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Universal And The Fractal

At the risk of stating the obvious, sometimes greatest hits albums do serve their purpose.

I tend to follow the Bruce McCullough edict that "greatest hits albums are for housewives and little girls". Rarely does a band have a hand in choosing what's selected, so what you end up with is a smattering of what some label rep thinks is the best assortment of hits, usually in chronological order. That order usually stinks, because it exemplifies how a band fell off after their initial spark, or took forever to get going, making it an album you rarely reach for (I'm looking at you, Soundgarden). If it's not in strict chronological order, it's often in some random jumble that sticks 3 weak songs back to back (to back!) right in the middle of the playtime, leading me to turn it off once it gets boring.

But sometimes, a band is so good... that it turns out right.

The Best Of Blur
is one of those times.

Now, I was late to the band. I felt pretty cool for finding their '97 self-titled (traded to a guy in school for an Alice In Chains EP). I was firmly stuck in my punk phase, and even with broad tastes, hadn't really dug up much of the U.S. deep underground. For a teen swimming in the dizzying Second New Wave Era of '94-'98, who needed to look much farther? But it was a sad record, still packed with hooks, and the strangest, most gnarled production texture ever. Of course, by the time I made this epochal discovery, they'd risen and fallen as the biggest band in England, and led by future Gorilla (and then-aspiring agitator) Damon Albarn, their snide Kinksian British POP competing with Oasis' more thuggish lager-rock and ultimately turned their backs on their musical homeland, indulging guitarist Graham Coxon's fascination with American indie and lo-fi acts like Pavement and Sebadoh. But what did I know? I was a 15-year-old.

Of course, over the years, I became a massive Blur fan. I could identify with their perfectly suburban take on modern life... a certain distaste for the obsession with newer, sleeker, faster, prettier, easier... at the expense of preservation. Without a sense of history, all that shiny plastic may be alluring, but as Blur would say, it's mostly "rubbish". They probably ended the '90s as my favorite of the Britpop wave, just edging out Pulp's sordid backroom glamo(u)r. I liked Blur because I WAS Blur. Smartass, arrogant, bored, frustrated, ultimately hopeful, but not terribly optimistic. They were nostalgic for they way things used to be, they way they SHOULD still be, but didn't seem to be anymore.

After a canon of classic Britpop, an experimental lo-fi branching out, the difficult follow up ("13", and then an interesting denouement (Think Tank) without musical director Coxon on board, they all went their separate ways, before '90s nostalgia kicked in and their later work, initially dismissed in the U.K. as Yankophilic dilettantism, found itself suddenly "ahead of it's time". They came back, did a reunion tour, everybody loved it... cool.

But that's all framing details. Their greatest hits package works because at face value it's a collection of better-than-average songs in a thoughtful sequence that highlights their individual quality and the sustained strength of the songwriting and kaleidoscopic reach. But forget all that... greatest hits packages work in one of two ways. For the casual consumer, they say "hey, here's a band whose songs that I heard I liked, I should get this, those and others I like are probably on there without all that other stuff to wade through!" And those people would be right. But I look at one and usually say, ok, knowing what I know about this band, how well does the album collect representative highlights that I'll like from this band?" As a fan, listening to The Best Of Blur is like watching a half-hour of really good previews for great movies you've already seen.

A fractal is "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole"... you've seen these... they look like primitive computerized psychedelic art. Well, this album plays like one. Each of Blur's albums has a very particular mood set over it, and while there's often a lot of room for movement, and maybe it's just the state of my life when I acquired each album, but the sequencing and track list of TBoB is like a volley of memories flooding back. The *ahem* highs and lows of "Beetlebum", and the rush of "Song 2" bring to mind that scrappy, dirty, raw guitar vibe of that self-titled album, before zooming away on the funkified wheels of the slick and dancey "There's No Other Way", from their debut album, which managed to synthesize Madchester baggy and lush shoegazing (and which I seem to like a lot more than anyone else seems to). From there, it flits around, but the emotions are programmed correctly, giving no pretense as hanging together cohesively in it's kaleidoscopic reach, but working like a stack of photographs pulled from a box. flip through them, know they're from different trips, then mix and match. It's amazing how effective the songs are, which is obviously credit to the strength of the writing. Their first classic, Modern Life Is Rubbish is almost completely ignored, but not only is that album very, very unified, it's also very, very British. And not that these boys have ever really HID their heritage, but it would be very insular to put much of that on a greatest hits, innit?

Moments from Parklife hit hardest, though. When the bouncier title track or "Girls And Boys" pop on I want to put on my docs and pogo around the room, but "To The End" and "This Is A Low" bring with them, even in miniature, the resigned nostalgia for a time clearly past that made Parklife such a powerful album in its entirety. That's the magic. That each of these moments, sequenced this way, bring with them all the complex statements that the albums were attempting to communicate as well. so when I listen to "To The End", I feel like I've spent all day with Tracy Jacks, and the trainspotting Englishman who feeds the pigeons, and those kids who just got back from a Bank Holiday rave on Majorca. And we're all at the dog track, having a pint before getting home to watch the telly, and I just remembered that you can't go back to the way it used to be. That's a pretty complex feeling to deliver in just a few minutes. Now, as I said, it's the SONG'S job to do that (and lest anyone forget, this is a BRILLIANT handful of songs), but the sequencing makes sure that you never linger in one area too long. Within a few minutes, that same imaginary "self" is whizzing through his teen years to the strains of "She's So High". It's complex and messy, and not even a perfect analogy, but what is?

Of course, I'm probably wrong. My sick, desperate psyche is probably searching for some greater meaning in life right now, and I'm just strongly identifying with some emotional signifiers that I had connected with during a particular emotional development phase when I was younger and am suddenly finding myself looking for solace in the "simpler" days of high school and college... a respite from the hectic responsibility of the adult world.

But someone who put this together made sure to place "Song 2" second on the track order. I've seen countless "best of the '90s" CD comps with that track... and most of them bury it late in the teens.

So there's hope...

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