My relationship with Blur is complicated, to say the least. While I certainly enjoy a good portion of their Britpop material, they’re far from my favourite band of the era. Oasis had bigger hits, Pulp had better albums, and Radiohead were taking British rock to more interesting places. Blur have a sound of their own, one that is certainly separate to the bands just mentioned, but I often find that I have to be in a certain mood to indulge the overwhelming Britishness. The fact that my favourite record of theirs, 13, is the least-Blur-sounding release of the whole lot, speaks volumes. Modern Life is Rubbish, their second studio album, is a solid set of songs that set the foundation for Parklife, which essentially did everything better. Gravelly guitars and pensive poetry set the scene for almost an hour. Most of the time it’s satisfying. Occasionally, it’s grating.
Not exactly known for its variety, Modern Life is Rubbish is very much one note. The album doesn’t justify its length, and the consistency in both its instrumentation and its production borders on repetitive. That being said, there’s a lot to like if you dig the general sound. The songwriting is hard to knock, and Damon Albarn leads the pack well with his social satires and cutting commentary. The record’s limitations are less about form or content, and more about structure. “Oily Water” stands out as a major highlight because it abandons Britpop and instead delves into a unique brand of noise rock (one that was thankfully revisited a few years later). The rest is mostly good fun of course, but it’s almost a relief to hear a song that doesn’t just sound like a tribute to The Kinks. Still, there are worse things. Like Leisure.7 10
Favourite tracks // Advert
Modern Life Is Rubbish is not Blur at their best. The production is tinny and restrictive, the songs are often overlong, and whole affair is front-loaded. And yet I still like it a lot. It’s very, very ‘90s. It’s like when you see footage of people wearing oversized running jackets and leopard skin onesies. I can’t help but find it charming that someone, somewhere not only thought that was a good idea, but almost pulled it off. The album’s a bit like that. There’s an unruly delight to something being so kooky and inelegant and colourful. From the oboe solo in “Star Shaped” to the two-tone mania of “Advert”, the playfulness on Modern Life Is Rubbish invites a kind of cackling glee from its listeners.
It’s a good thing the album clatters along as well as it does, because its range is actually quite narrow. The band spend so much time trying to sound like their guitar pop idols that they sometimes forget to sound like themselves. It’s no coincidence “Oily Water” is the standout track, flaunting as it does the most muscular mix on the record. The cockney vaudeville backdrop is charming, but it’s hard to beat Blur putting their foot down. The balance between those moods isn’t quite there on Modern Life Is Rubbish, though it’s still terrifically good fun. I think this strain of Blur peaked with Parklife, which adorned it with the sophisticated arrangements and rich production it needed to make a proper splash.7 10
Favourite tracks // Oily Water
Modern Life Is Rubbish has been rather battered by time. It’s not that it sounds bad at all, and in fact tracks like “Oily Water” and “Advert” make for an enjoyable ride. But next to its successors, Blur’s second album feels like the album before the band hit their stride. There are a wealth of comparisons I could make between this and the follow up, Parklife, and unfortunately the latter nearly always wins out over the former. Be that the overt Britishness that ripples throughout Blur’s discography, or the singles that stick with you long after you’re finished with the album, it’s hard not to draw similarities. As an album in isolation, Modern Life Is Rubbish flourishes at times. “Star Shaped” features a brief oboe solo, a quirk that harks back to ’60s rock from the likes of The Beatles and The Kinks, before kicking back into a far more raucous affair, “Miss America” is a favourite of mine purely for its lazy approach that sits well after thirty minutes of rock. But for everything this album hits, there’s a miss to match. Production feels a little off throughout, with punchy drums and a fuggy guitar section leading to a slightly mucky tone and, at an hour long, the tracklist feels as though it could easily drop several tracks and be stronger for it. Take a deep dive into Blur’s discography and it’ll soon become apparent that Modern Life Is Rubbish laid the groundwork for a lot of what came after, even the occasional Gorillaz-esque moment. But that in itself doesn’t feel like a reason to enjoy this album more, and I’d find it hard to convince myself to return to this over their work where they really nailed Britpop in Parklife and beyond.6 10
Favourite tracks // For Tomorrow