It's a crisp, clear morning in New York's Central Park, and for a change, Blur frontman Damon Albarn is able to appreciate having his feet planted on American soil. While the 27-year-old singer has explored the park's paths on previous visits to New York, he spent most of those hikes in blue funks heightened by a steady Walkman-fed diet of mope-pop guru Scott Walker. Today, however, Albarn is positively effusive, whistling a chorus of "Tea for Two," even breaking into a brief soft-shoe as he exits the elevator of his label's midtown offices. • "I can honestly say this is the first time I've been happy to be in America," says Albarn, who used to exhibit his Yankophobia in sullen displays of attitude that made journalists tremble and brought at least one record company operative to tears. "In the past we were obstinate," Albarn says. "Now we're looking for ways to translate, as opposed to demanding people understand us on our own terms."
Albarn's new found affability has no doubt been nurtured by Blur's ascent to superstardom across Europe in the wake of last year's Parklife album, which spent months atop the European charts. But just as 1991's Leisure and 1993's Modem Life Is Rubbish made few inroads in the States outside a cadre of die-hard Anglophiles, Parklife failed to gain the band a foothold on these shores, which seems to have prompted a bit of soul-searching.
While Blur's past work ranks between steak-and-kidney pie and bad dental hygiene in its Britishness, their fourth album, The Great Escape, all but obliterates the image of four Union Jack-waving provincialists. Aside from the odd lapse into Cockney slang, the thematically seamless LP could speak to anyone left deadened by the bleakness of suburbia on either side of the Atlantic. With the lovingly detailed sketches of life behind manicured hedgerows, the sonically adventurous set solidifies Albarn's position as sole heir to a tradition of pop as social commentary established by the Kinks' Ray Davies.
"Early on, we were a bit unsophisticated," acknowledges Albarn. "We would simply attach ourselves to anything identifiably British. I wasn't trying to appropriate anyone else's life for my own – I was merely commenting from the outside. The Great Escape is from the inside."
Albarn's journey within may well have been prompted by the public scrutiny he has undergone these past few months as a regular fixture in the gossip pages of London's tabloids. But that hasn't taken all the sting out of Blur's past inabilities to break through to the kids in America. "You can't deny there's appeal to the image end of things," he says. "You grow up wanting to be the biggest band in Britain, and you achieve that – or something close to it – and realize just how colloquial it is."
Bassist Alex James, who has taken an hour – and a few cups of tea – to emerge from a hangover haze, agrees but takes the opportunity to chide his band mate for a bit of inconsistency. "He was in quite a snit earlier," James whispers conspiratorially. "He and Justine were having breakfast at the hotel, and some girl came up and asked her for an autograph."
Justine, as those familiar with the co-habitating arrangements of the British pop star will no doubt recognize, is Albarn's longtime girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, who happens to lead Elastica, a band that thus far has outstripped Blur in terms of Stateside popularity. The two have lived together for several years now, dodging the pitfalls so common to the lovestyles of the rich and famous.
"It actually makes things easier, because we understand the demands placed on the other one," Albarn says. "We do very different things, so there's not really any competition." In other words, fights over chart position aren't as common as the ones about what gets placed on the stereo.
"Justine absolutely hates a lot of what I listen to – the ballads and all – but she makes me listen to Mark E. Smith," says Albarn, the Fall leader's name eliciting a grimace worthy of a child finding liver on his dinner plate. It's not surprising that the notoriously obscure Smith would rub Albarn the wrong way. Albarn's pop sensibility is strong enough that he bristles when the term rock & roll is used to describe his band's music. "Pop is a much more inclusive term," he says. He is also one of the few lyric writers who examine life from a perspective other than that of the angst-ridden adolescent. His characters endure failed marriages, trouble at the office and sexual dysfunction – and Albarn is more than happy to discuss each in detail.
"We're the sort of band that likes to have a bit of a chinny-wag about what our songs are about," Albarn says. "That comes from an art-school tradition where you're trained to talk endlessly about why you got up this morning." To hear him tell it, The Great Escape is a suite of songs that revolves around people who've gained their freedom, only to be paralyzed by indecision over their next step. The title character of the lurching "Mr. Robinson's Quango" develops a lingerie fetish; the protagonist of "He Thought of Cars" slips behind the wheel of an expensive automobile, only to drive around aimlessly. Albarn points out that his microscope is multidirectional, as evidenced by the album's deceptively bouncy single "Country House."
"Last year I developed a deep depression that grew out of utter exhaustion," Albarn explains. "I went to a doctor, to a faith healer, an acupuncturist.... I was acting ridiculous. I wrote that song as a sort of sendup of my own state of mind." While the song's video sees Albarn try cures from institutionalization to Prozac, he says he relied largely on rest, dismissing Prozac as "a harbinger of the universal bland."
Blandness has been Blur's chief enemy since Day One. As a prime mover on the hedonistic "baggy" scene, they recorded day-glo dance-pop singles like "She's So High" before opting to eschew post-mod for real mod – scooters, parkas and all for Modern Life Is Rubbish. The move bewildered their label, which delayed the album's American release for nearly a year, the first in an escalating series of skirmishes. "When you're dealing with people who don't understand you and don't like your music, it gets to be a bit frustrating," Albarn says. "From the first time we got off the plane in America, we knew that was the case. We wasted two albums in the process of trying to get free."
Fortunately, the timing of that exit coincides with the release of The Great Escape, undeniably Blur's most adventurous record to date. There may be nothing as infectious as the Eurodisco romp "Girls and Boys," a single from Parklife that contributed significantly to their pan-European breakthrough, but the quartet makes up for it in sheer scope. Think of it as The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society as seen through the eyes of one well versed in this decade's genre-bending collage work.
The Great Escape,which debuted at No. 1 on the British charts, sold more than 500,000 copies there in its first two weeks of release. The result put a stop to endless weeks of speculation – among the press and bookmakers, who took thousands of pounds worth of bets on the matter – as to whether Blur or alleged archrivals Oasis would scale the chart faster. "They had it set up as working-class heroes vs. middle-class berks," Albarn says scornfully. "And naturally the assumption is that the working class is more real, so it deserves to win."
A product of a bohemian upper-middle-class home, Albarn grew up alongside guitarist Graham Coxon in Colchester, nestled in the exurbia outside London. A few years earlier, drummer Dave Rountree (who as a 31-year-old former anarcho-punk is the band's oldest member) had left the same town for London's grayer pastures. Albarn and Coxon were united by a shared affinity for such ska supremos as Madness and the Specials, and – of all things – Adam and the Ants.
"Those were the days of real pop stars – there aren't many left," says James, a Londoner who met the rest of the band during a stint at art school. "Aside from Terence Trent D'Arby. We headlined a festival this spring, and he was playing at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. Yet he drove up in a stretch limousine, and we were in a transit van. That's a proper pop star."
Albarn shudders at the sorry state of today's pop scene, but that doesn't mean he's about to take cues from the behavior detailed above."The notion of being a pop star in the '90s is an anachronism, really,"Albarn says."It's a bit like being the last of the dinosaurs. I've got this feeling that when the millennium rolls around, some comet will wipe out any of us that have survived. Except U2, of course. Like cockroaches, they can survive anything."
This story is from the November 2, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.