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Dusting ‘Em Off: Blur – Leisure

on August 04, 2012, 10:00am

In the 2010 documentary No Distance Left to Run (not to be confused with the 2008 documentary Foo Fighters: No Distance Left to Run), Blur’s vocalist Damon Albarn reflected on the band’s debut album, 1991’s Leisure, calling it “awful”. Albarn went so far as to imply that the album is probably the worst in the band’s catalog and that if it had been released in today’s more unforgiving and rapidly changing environment, Blur may not have survived to make a second album. This sentiment, in hindsight, is rather intriguing considering how important and influential Blur would go on to become in the years following the release of Leisure. However, looking at Leisure on its own, without any knowledge of the Brit Pop classics that were to come (1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1994’s Parklife, 1995’s The Great Escape), Albarn may have a point. After repeated listens to both the UK and US versions of the album, and listening to it with intent as well as loosely in the background, I believe that I understand why Albarn (and possibly the rest of the band) feels this way. To quote The Breakfast Club, “in the simplest terms and most convenient definitions,” the band that recorded Leisure is not Blur.

Despite the fact that the musicians on the album (Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree) are the same four on every Blur album until 2003’s Think Tank, the songs on Leisure are not of a band that is sure of itself or secure in its own identity. The music on Leisure rather rides the tail-end of a bandwagon that had peaked two years prior. This wasn’t necessarily the fault of the band, but rather the label, as it was label owners Andy Ross and David Balfe who were “convinced Blur’s best course of action was to continue drawing influence from the Madchester genre.” When Blur released its first two singles, the psychedelic, hazy “She’s So High” (a song that predicts bands like Oasis) and the extremely “baggy” influenced “There’s No Other Way” (the band’s first major hit), they managed to ascend into an elite club of pop superstars, but they in no way broke any barriers. In fact with the release of Leisure, Andrew Collins, critic for NME, wrote, “It ain’t the future. Blur are merely the present of rock n’ roll.”

Blur simply suffered from being in the right place at the wrong time. The majority of the bands representing the baggy sounds of the Madchester scene formed in the early to mid ’80s and released their landmark albums before the boys in Circus were becoming Seymour and before they were given the suggestion to change their name again to Blur. By the time Blur showed up, much less released any singles, Madchester had already peaked (though no one knew it at the time) and sounds coming from the south, derided as “shoegaze”, began creeping north. When critics call Leisure a definitive collection of songs that represents the era, it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Though they may mean well, when listening to Leisure in full, it becomes all the more clear that the reason the album is so “definitive” is because Leisure is a covers album– only rather than cover other bands’ substance, Blur covered the styles.

It was probably a bit of an overstatement when Blur said in a 1991 interview in Select that they “killed” the baggy genre. In hindsight, the band could possibly be accused of contributory negligence. Listening to Leisure is akin to listening to an album done in the style of Madchester’s greatest acts. Though the band integrates elements of the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, and Inspiral Carpets throughout Leisure, the album probably wouldn’t have sounded the way it did had it not been for the Charlatans (UK) and its 1990 release, Some Friendly, an album whose sonic thumbprint is all over Leisure. In fact, the music on Leisure is so indebted to these acts that the tracklisting might as well have those bands listed parenthetically next to the song titles.

There are two differences between the UK and US releases of Leisure. The first, most obvious difference, is with the album sequence. Both albums begin with the first single, “She’s So High”, and end with the lethargic “Birthday” followed by “Wear Me Down”, one of the few moments on the album that hint at the band to come. However, on the US release, all three singles (“She’s So High”, “There’s No Other Way”, “Bang”) were front-loaded on the album, while the mid-portion was shuffled about. The second big difference between the two is the substitution of the hypnotic “Sing” with the far more poppy “I Know”, a song that is so Charlatans-esque it’s easy to imagine Tim Burgess giving Albarn this song (as well as his haircut) in a manner akin to Bobby Darin giving Wayne Newton “Danke Schoen”. Both songs were originally AA sides to “She’s So High”, with “Sing” eventually finding its way into the US via the Trainspotting soundtrack.

Despite missing a far superior song in “Sing”, the US version of Leisure actually benefits from the shuffling of songs. The fluidity between tracks is much stronger and allows for a consistent listen, as opposed to the UK version, which can come off as simply a collection of songs. Singles “There’s No Other Way” and “Bang” both revel in frolicking drums that roll along the bottom, mirroring the Stone Roses’ “Fools Gold” (a groove revisited on “High Cool” when Blur melts in a bit of the Happy Mondays) that flows neatly into the aforementioned “I Know”.

Despite a strong tendency to favor baggy rhythms and psychedelic dance grooves on this release, Blur has always been a guitar band at heart, and hints of that can be heard throughout Leisure. The biggest moments that point toward albums such as Parklife don’t come until late in the album, on tracks like “Fool” and album closer “Wear Me Down”. The latter track is a hypnotic gaze bookended with some rough and tumbling guitar rock that, in hindsight, might be aimed squarely at Suede, the band’s rival before Oasis. The guitar frenzied chaos on “Come Together”, perhaps the band’s most Inspiral Carpets-like moment (think “Plane Crash”, only 15 minutes shorter), is broken up by a breakdown straight out of the Stone Roses’ playbook. “Slow Down”, with its Dinosaur Jr. influence streaming through Coxon’s guitar work, indicates the band’s affection for American guitar rock long before critics praised the band in 1997 for embracing American indie rock on “Song 2”.

Even upon its release, camps were divided about Leisure. Is it a good Blur album? It’s hard to say, considering that the band didn’t gain their own identity until they became homesick while touring the US in support of Leisure and the Popscene EP, and it was that state of mind that lead them to write Modern Life Is Rubbish. Is it a good album in general? Yes, most certainly. The collection of material on the album is certainly strong, regardless of how entwined it is with a certain era. But because the music tends to favor styles associated with other popular acts of the time, Blur’s biggest problem on Leisure is simply that they rarely appear on it.

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Andy
October 12, 2012 at 1:26 pm

As someone who is just now discovering Blur outside of Song 2 and Girls & Boys, this review is spot on. I’m buying each album in order, one by one so I can have that organic listening experience I missed out on in the 90s.