Aside from a minor hit three years ago, with the perfect pop single "Girls and Boys," England's beloved Blur have never quite killed alternative-era America. The band's 1994 Parklife, with its deft character sketches and musical finesse, may have reminded Britain how intimately pop can reflect that country's social and political swirl. But by the time the 1995 single "Country House" (off The Great Escape) appeared here, the conflicts between U.K. and American tastes seemed too decisive for Blur. "Country House," a swinging indictment of upper-middle-class remove, struck many Americans as too perfect. It had been a long time since groups such as Roxy Music or Steely Dan offered similarly cranky-minded tunes that relied on that degree of pop calibration.
With Blur, this glossy pop band rethinks its craft. Claiming that their current inspirations include Beck and Pavement, Blur have made an album that singer Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon say was done off the cuff. The scrupulous sonic contouring and porcelain finishes of Blur's last two albums have vanished. Blur's melodies, moreover, have abandoned much of their old Kinks-y fuss. Take "Song 2": It starts with a flaky rhythm track, piles on distorted guitars, yelps "whee hoo," then traipses off into a surrealistic monologue before returning to rock out on the choruses.
Don't let Blur kid you, though: What still makes them great is their deep grasp of style and genre. What they haven't done on Blur is roll out of bed, strum a few chords and loudly free-associate about the first thing that pops into their heads. This is a record that inhabits current American rock biases as cogently and intelligently as Parklife corralled the last few decades of British rock.
So you get terrific things like "Beetlebum," a rare Beatles tribute in that it remembers to include the Fab Four's sex appeal, and the otherworldly street ballad "Strange News Erom Another Star," which luxuriates in lots of melancholy and infinite sadness. You get classic English gesturing in "Death of a Party" (imagine Noel Coward in a band), and you get elastic rockers ("I'm Just a Killer for Your Love"), witty celebrity profiles ("Country Sad Ballad Man") and one dashing old-style dramatic piece ("Essex Dogs"). "M.O.R." is a roaring homage to Mott the Hoople.
But most of Blur remains fascinated with the U.S., as in the classic '90s road ballad "Look Inside America." In the song, the band is just up from last night's show, swigging Pepsi to find the energy to do a local TV show. Blur's single has been added to KROQ. "Look inside America," Blur sing. "She's all right; she's all right." Blur might just see the compliment returned.