Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Blur 'The Universal'

Chart Peak: 5


'The Universal' made No.5 in November 1995 as the follow-up to 'Country House'... Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave have already recorded another Top 10 success in 1996 with 'Stereotypes' - their 7th consecutive UK Top 20 single.

If you're lucky enough to have the vinyl version of Now 33, I reckon this is the start of Side 2, which offers ten tracks of what might very broadly be called British rock, though not all Britrock let alone Britpop. Blur are obviously most people's idea of a Britpop act, possibly even the defining act of the subgenre; but 'The Universal' is rather a different sort of thing from 'Country House' and despite its slow tempo and luxuriant orchestral arrangement, it was a brave choice of Christmas single. Or at least it would have been had Blur not been so big that pretty much any second single from The Great Escape was guaranteed to enter in the Top 5, alongside tracks by Oasis, Everything But The Girl and Coolio that appear on other Now albums, as well as a single by Robson and Jerome that thankfully doesn't. I think it's to their credit that they (and EMI, I suppose) were willing to use that power to try out slightly more experimental material, and indeed that at this point in their career they were making records that had clear commercial appeal as well as being interesting. It was the more self-consciously arty Blur that began to lose my attention towards the end of the century, no pun intended.

The lyric paints an insidious dystopia, made all the creepier by the promising tone it has: it's not the song of a fascist threatening the populace, nor of the victims protesting, but the sound of false reassurance, of a world where people have effectively chosen to be trapped. You'll doubtless find plenty of conspiracy theorists and political extremists who'll claim that Albarn was being hugely prescient about the 21st century, but I prefer to think that he's looking at a more fundamental element of the human condition, and our natural desire for pampering and hedonism (remember what Alex James was shoving up his nose and down his throat at the time) and for somebody else to take responsibility. I don't know whether some of the odd scansion is an intentional part of the unsettling effect (for what it's worth, on the live radio session on the second CD, he gets the "tomorrow's your lucky day" part slightly wrong) but his deadpan delivery certainly is, as is Graham Coxon's understated guitar playing. In fact the only thing seriously wrong with this is that they whored it out to those gas adverts. They can't need the money, surely?

Also appearing on: Now 28, 29, 33, 34, 36, 37, 42, 43
Available on: The Great Escape (Special Edition)

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