“But look at music now. Does it say anything? Young artists talk about themselves, not what’s happening out there.” These words from Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn might seem trite butviewed in light of his development as an increasingly political and culturally disaffected songwriter, there is more substance to Albarn’s critique of pop music than meets the eye. Blur’s new album, The Magic Whip, their first with the original line-up in 16 years, highlights the gulf between Albarn and his pop contemporaries.
Albarn’s music has always been inflected with cultural criticism. Blur’s 1993 landmark album (the start of nearly everything interesting that happened in the 90s) was entitled Modern Life Is Rubbish, and served as the first in a trilogy of what are now considered to be classics of the ‘Britpop’ genre. Albarn’s observational character-based songs decried the sameness and inertia of everyday life, a theme he has revisited throughout his career.
Since effectively disbanding Blur in 2003 to focus on his side project Gorillaz, the tone and content of Albarn’s song writing has shifted notably towards the political. Having long grown tired of effortlessly churning out pop anthems Albarn was drawn more and more towards musical and lyrical experimentation towards the end of his time with Blur. After the release of what it seemed would be the band’s final album in 2003, the same year as the invasion of Iraq, Albarn felt sufficiently liberated from the trappings of pop stardom to tackle political causes.
Alongside Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack (himself noted for his long-standing activism in support of Palestine), Albarn led the charge in attempting to mobilise the music community against the war, and played a visible role in the historic protest movement that brought millions on to the streets. Now, with Blur having reunited to record The Magic Whip, their first album as a four-piece since 1999, Albarn views his music as a political intervention.
Possessing the most Tory rhythm section in history – bassist Alex James is a friend of David Cameron while drummer Dave Rowntree is a failed New Labour election candidate who supported the Iraq War – doesn’t hinder Blur. Thankfully, when it comes to the political tone of their songs, the band defer to their frontman’s superior judgement. The Magic Whip, with tracks like ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’, picks up where he left off on last year’s solo debut Everyday Robots, a mournful look at the increasingly alienated and atomised nature of life in modern capitalist society: “We are everyday robots on our phones…in the process of being sold.”
The problem, as Albarn sees it, is that this kind of cultural criticism is playing an ever diminishing role in contemporary pop music: “It’s bereft of it. It’s a shame because the three-minute pop song was such a great way to express discontent.” Now, he feels, it’s as if “the Beatles and Bob Dylan never happened”. Viewed against the backdrop of this decline, Albarn cuts a lonely figure, a rare breed of cultural critic who represents the best traditions of pop music as political expression.
Albarn’s role, throughout the 90s with Blur and 2000s with Gorillaz, has been to help carve out and shape new terrain in pop music whilst writing songs that say something real about the world in which we live. It’s a fine tradition, and one which perhaps no other artist of this generation has done as much to preserve.