'OK Computer', 'Urban Hymns' and Oasis' record breaker 'Be Here Now' all helped shape the year that marked the commonly perceived end of the Britpop movement as the UK turned its attention to the approaching Millenium. By 1997 the press and public had spent years reveling in the idea that Oasis and Blur served as a foil to each other, in a manner more akin to two rival football teams than two contemporary recording artists. Nevertheless, in 97 Oasis had the stadium rocking 'Be Here Now' and in contrast, Blur steered in the opposite direction with their self-titled 'Blur'.
The new route was instigated by guitarist Graham Coxon, who by '96 was reportedly becoming bored and frustrated with the band's Britpop associations and the ethos behind Blur's preceding albums 'The Great Escape' and 'Parklife', released in '95 and '94 respectively. As a guitarist, Coxon became interested in what was going on in the American alternative scene and urged the rest of the band along with producer Stephen Street to join him in experimenting with a more challenging and less jocular approach to the next album.
The arc of releases around 'Blur' began early in 1997 with the January release of lead single 'Beetlebum'. The single entered the UK chart at number one as many expected a returning record from a big hitting Britpop band would. 'Beetlebum' was a very different type of song to the band's previous chart topper 'Country House' though. Gone were the cheeky characters and antics of 'The Great Escape', replaced with honest personal accounts of drug use alternating between dirge and euphoria across its five-minute length.
'Blur' was released in February to a mainly well-received response with all but a few Britpop die-hards welcoming the new more mature Blur, and recognising the need for the band to evolve if they were to move forward. April saw the second single released from the album cementing the public's approval of 'Blur'. 'Song 2' has since become what many would consider Blur's best-known song, despite it being very out of character for the band. With Coxon's guitar hook sitting somewhere between heavy metal and punk rock and Dave Rowntree's relentless drumming, 'Song 2' has often been interpreted as a mocking caricature of the American grunge movement. Ironically, if that was the case, it ended up scoring Blur their biggest US hit to date and winning over fans that had previously written off Blur as an effete pop band. 'Song 2' became a dance-floor filler, driving tune and mosh pit anthem over night.
'On Your Own' was the next song from the album to be released in June. Continuing with Blur's exhibition of new musical influences the song seemed to incorporate elements of hip hop culture into its American sourced ingredients. The chorus with its mention of a "hooligan guerilla" hints at Albarn's exploits with Gorillaz in the years that followed.
Other notable tracks on the album include 'Death of a Party' which has been compared to The Specials' 'Ghost Town' and 'Strange News From Another Star' which many consider a sort of loose homage to Bowie's 'Space Oddity' and 'Starman'. It was the similarity of another track that caused the band a temporary legal headache and ended up being co-credited to David Bowie and Brian Eno after release at the request of officious music lawyers.
With 'M.O.R.', the last single to be released from the LP, the band decided to continue with an experiment started by Bowie and Eno in Berlin on the 1979 album 'Lodger', writing multiple songs with the same chord sequence. Bowie's results included 'Fantastic Voyage' and 'Boys Keep Swinging', with the latter being the track that the lawyers used to draw their conclusions when they heard Blur's successful outcome. Legal complications aside, 'M.O.R.' acts as another example of Blur stretching themselves conceptually on their fifth album. Recreating another artist's method from another time and place is just the sort of thing one would expect from Bowie himself, or for that matter pop art's master of appropriation Andy Warhol.
Subsequent albums '13', 'Think Tank' and 'The Magic Whip' allowed Blur to travel further away from their Britpop pigeonhole, but it was 'Blur' that marked the moment that Albarn, Coxon, Rowntree and James stepped outside the confines of the 1990s and looked to the future.