Thursday, 27 June 2013

Blur 'Tender'

Chart Peak: 2

The highly anticipated return of Blur comes in the form of the mesmerising 'Tender'... Featuring anthemic support from the London Gospel Community Choir {sic}, the single provides the first taste from Blur's sixth album due for release in March '99.
In early 1999, the magazine Heat was launched amid great fanfare. I didn't buy it, but I was curious enough to flick though a copy of the first issue in Woolworth's and one story near the front caught my eye. In a shock expose of the singles chart, Heat announced that they'd tried and failed to persuade any bookmaker to take a bet on the next three weeks' Number One singles being, in order: '...Baby One More Time' by Britney Spears, 'Tender' by Blur and 'When The Going Gets Tough' by Boyzone. Whilst there was at the time a taboo among bookies about taking bets on the chart performance of charity records, this was taken as proof that the whole thing was a foregone conclusion. There probably was some truth in the original accusation, since this was of course the era of big frontloaded sales and heavy pre-release promotion, with big singles often deliberately scheduled apart.  But Heat overstated their case since, in the event, 'Tender' was no match for even Britney's second-week sales and had to settle for a peak at 2; it did have the consolation of spending more weeks in the Top 10 than their last chart-topper, 'Beetlebum' managed in the entire Top 40. People who bought the second CD got two Number 2 singles for their money, since 'Song 2' - surely the best-known Blur song not to make a Now album - appeared in both sound and video forms. However, given my aversion to multi-format purchases, I made do with CD1, in its annoyingly sealed, ruined when opened, sleeve: perhaps they were hoping people would buy extra copies to listen to and get that Number One single.

As you can see though, my copy remained in fairly good condition because I didn't really play it all that often. Blur were my favourite band in the late 1990s, and I'd enjoyed the swerve in direction they took with the Blur album in 1997, so I was actually quite excited when I first heard news of a sixth album in late 1998. I was even more excited when my dad came home from working on a TV commercial in South Africa and informed me that the ad's directors had been sent a tape of the forthcoming single so they could pitch for the video. In the event, they didn't get the job, but it didn't matter much because the clip that was filmed, at reportedly great expense, was never shown and instead the official promo video is a moody black-and-white live performance. A genuinely live one, dubious singing and all, so it doesn't fully represent the audio track and thus isn't the link at the top of this post. However, it does offer a hint of the aesthetic Blur were going for at this point, supposedly a more honest sound, with Damon Albarn writing about his own emotions rather than the imagined characters and situations with which his earlier lyrics were filled. The trouble was, I didn't really want to hear about his personal life all that much and I was already suspicious of earnestness in pop. Although I persuaded myself I liked 'Tender' the first time I heard it on the radio, and never really considered not buying it, I wasn't sold on it, especially its inordinate length. it's 7:40, and the radio edit was never commercially issued, though it's on the jukebox single and showed up on a covermount CD from Q magazine - even the extensive and expensive Blur 21 box has no room for it. Even here on Now 42 we get the full length version, which might be why there are only 19 tracks on this disc and 21 on the other. It occurs to me in retrospect that this is kind of Blur's 'Hey Jude' and like that song, it's not all bad but it's the work of a band past their prime. Indeed, both songs are the product of a fracturing collaboration: 'Hey Jude' was one of the last McCartney songs John Lennon admitted to liking, and 'Tender' features a chorus written and sung by Graham Coxon, who left the band a couple of years later. Parent album 13 is the band's last studio work to date with his full participation, and ironically it's an album where Coxon is responsible for the poppiest moments whilst Albarn disappears into his own pretentiousness or laziness. In that context, this is actually one of the more melodic tracks and it is a good-sounding record with well-recorded percussion and a surprisingly smooth double-bass line from Alex James of all people, plus the luxuriant backing vocals of the London Community Gospel Choir, which make you wish they'd been given something more exciting to sing than "Oh my baby". It even follows 'Hey Jude' by leaving in a blooper on purpose - at almost exactly the four-minute mark, you can hear the very start of the title word being sung at the wrong moment.

There's a good five-minute single lurking in here, but it's too hidden. It was never the same between me and Blur after this, and I didn't even get round to buying the (largely) post-Coxon album Think Tank until a couple of weeks ago. I only paid £2:99 for it then. 

Also appearing on: Now 28, 29, 32, 33, 34, 36, 37, 43
Available on: 13 (Special Edition)

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