It may have led to the most over-hyped moment in music since the Beatles/Stones battle to win fans in the sixties but Blur’s The Great Escape, the fourth studio album to get the 21st Anniversary edition make over, stands out as possibly the most cohesive, most entertaining and slyest dig at British life that the band produced.
It is both reverential and sardonic, beautifully sarcastic and yet full of British humour. It is the complete album and yet it wasn’t without its detractors who still insist it may as well be the epitome of bawdy Britain, the un-coolest cool album and as the first song on the album alludes to, stereotypical of what Britain was in danger of becoming.
The Great Escape starts off with crunching and generous playing of keyboards and the sudden imagery of detachment in modern Britain attaches itself to the song and to the whole album. Whereas in the previous offering there was hope to be found in the song End Of A Century and the almost hypnotic thrill of conforming with one other person, Stereotypes shows the breakdown of a marriage, the end of a relationship after the muted goodbyes have been suggested. The dream that was lived by both has now turned and the woman left on her own finds herself needing validation of her life. This can be seen as a small nod of acceptance to where Blur had found them at the centre of the British music world vying for the coveted top spot alongside Manchester’s Oasis.
The validation was there, from the fans at least. Reactions were strongly in favour of the album but at what price to the band themselves. Perhaps also for the first time the inlay card showed where the band’s artistic heads were as the images of bankers dealing (something they would have enjoyed destroying many years later), the opportunities to win a house accompanying the song It Could Be You, a shark with the incredible Charmless Man and perhaps the most used picture from the album, the still photograph of an idyllic Bavarian castle with the warning sign underneath of Private Property for the single release Country House amongst them. The sense of commentary of the corruption of greed is powerful; to have what others cannot even dream of is an over-riding message and may have been at the back of the minds as the album went global.
It is rare to get an album where there isn’t a bad song anywhere to be found. Even being hyper-critical and precious about the future of British music has no effect on The Great Escape. From start to finish it is an album that captures the time with sweet dedication and yet still manages to make itself seem very relevant in the austere times of 2012. It is allowed to have the swagger of brilliance, the exuberance of mocking derision purely because of how the songs are written and arranged. The songs may be labelled twee, not having substance, sixth form poetry that shows the dwindling ability of post 1960’s education. Far from it, it shows a reasoned and skillfull appreciation of word play missing from so many songs in the 1990’s and even plays on the group’s association with the ‘mockney’ label they were given.
Country House as a single saw the battle between Oasis and Blur take shape. Oasis released possibly one of their best songs, Roll With It, as a single the same day as Blur released Country House. Blur won the race to number one, narrowly, but it was the image of the video that sold it to the public. Like Madness in the 1980’s, it seems that Blur had realised that a catchy and memorable video would help the public’s perception of the song. By including the likes of Matt Lucas, Keith Allen and Sara Stockbridge on the video, a superb pastiche of a legendary Benny Hill sketch, the band were catapulted to a higher level than was previously thought of.
Everyone will no doubt have their own favourite when it comes to The Great Escape, with no hesitation many will point to Country House or Charmless Man as a particular highlight, however it would be wise to consider the band’s second single taken from the album The Universal, for it merits and use of brass section to give the song some extra delicateness that had been missing from the band. The depth of feeling it created still gives listeners goose bumps when the song comes on. It is a stand out song, not just from the album but from the career of Blur.
The Great Escape should be considered as one of the top pop/rock albums of the last 50 years, not just musically or for what visually accompanied it but for what followed as the band started to be pulled apart.
Ian D. Hall