The London art-school boys in Blur have built one of the decade's choicest bodies of work, hopping from style to style with breezy melodies and snotty wit, and 13 is their fourth straight keeper. They're a throwback to the days when bands had that gang mentality: There's the mouthy, obnoxious singer (Damon Albarn); the shy, bespectacled guitar wizard (Graham Coxon); the superfox bassist (Alex James); and some bloke on the drums (Dave Rowntree). Parklife and The Great Escape were Kinks/Jam/Bowie-style satires on sex, fame and money, with string sections and that sort of thing. But Blur stripped down for 1997's Blur, the back-to-school blast of guitar junk that spawned the American hit "Song 2" (you remember: "Wooo-hooo!"). 13 builds on the style of Blur, turning up the guitar hooks and letting the tape roll.
New producer William Orbit (of Madonna fame) loosens up Blur for their sloppiest, most playful set yet, spiking the mix with church organ, electric piano and shambling drum loops. It's the kind of album you can't wait to play for your guitar-geek pals, as Coxon makes his ax squeal, hum, fizz and even levitate at the end of "1992," a top-notch freakout that almost lets you forgive his recent solo record. Like all Blur albums, 13 has filler: too much studio-improvised headphone goop. But the real songs go places. "Tender" is a gentle gospel sing-along, while Albarn sings some surprisingly sincere heartache ballads (best line: "I lost my girl to the Rolling Stones"). "Coffee and TV" propels a marriage proposal over a warm gush of guitars that sounds like Pavement sitting in with Brian Eno circa Taking Tiger Mountain — after three or four minutes, your only complaint is that the song has to end. As do the other great moments on 13, "Coffee and TV" gives you the pleasant feeling of getting run over by a hit squad on Vespas: all in all, a smashing time.