In “Uncommon”, Owen Hatherley’s book on Pulp which I reviewed last week, the author constantly pours scorn on Pulp’s Britpop contemporaries Blur. Time after time they are dismissed as middlebrow and middle-class, sneering at the proles from positions of privilege. Curiously, this made me want to revisit their back catalogue. Mainly, to see if they really were as awful as author argued. Listening to “The Great Escape” around 17 years after I first heard it was interesting, the likes of “Mr Robinson’s Quangos” and “It Could Be You” were as crassly condescending as Hatherley suggested. They remain the pop of music equivalent of those Radio 4 “comedy” shows where posh hacks dress old jokes up as “topical” comedy.
Yet there are a few tracks on “The Great Escape” that were still as sad and alien as I remember them being when I was 12 years old. “Best Days“, “Fade Away“, “Yuko and Hiro” and British Gas jingle “The Universal” all have a numbed, peculiarly modern melancholy to them. The most startling track though was “He Thought of Cars“. The lyric “it shouldn’t snow this time of year” resonated for obvious reason but here Blur’s sarcastic sneers had disappeared. Lyrically it is oblique, musically it is fractured but you can distinguish a protagonist trapped in a present that has relinquished its promises. The unnamed individual is stuck in a perpetual present of strange weather and alienation where the only escape is to dream of unattainable consumables.
Where Pulp struck out defiantly against the injustices of class and capitalism Blur melt into a kind of resigned slump, an enervated emptiness. Lacking a festival sized chorus that defined the similar “End of a Century” and “This is a Low” – atmospherically at least – its dubby desolation has more in common with the lost generation of mid-’90s post-rock acts like Bark Psychosis and Disco Inferno than Shed Seven or Sleeper. It’s in a lineage of sad English psychedelia you can trace through Bowie’s Berlin back to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and into the old weird Albion of myth folklore and then forward to the spooked modernity of Burial and Forest Swords. Disco Inferno’s magisterial “The Last Dance” and “Summers Last Sound” collected on “The 5 EPs” were released a few years previously and capture a similar sense of dislocation and resignation. Though on “The Last Dance” at least there is a hopeful energy in the gorgeous crescendo.
Looking from my office window at an April blizzard over the Westway both songs made perfect sense. With the weather stuck in what seems like perpetual winter, government cuts seemingly designed to punish the poorest and tabloids turning lone monsters into politicised folk demons they capture a certain hopeless, trapped feeling that is hard to verbalise. Some have suggested that Britain’s economic slump and ensuing malaise is reminiscent of the slow dying of Soviet Russia, that may seem over dramatic but for the duration of these songs it seems all too plausible.