Monday, November 17, 2003

"DAMON, JUST HOW MULTI-TALENTED AND WONDERFUL ARE YOU?": The Bonoisation (or, if you prefer, the Stingification) of Damon Albarn continues with a hagiography in Scotland on Sunday by Nigel Williamson.

It's a piece to treasure for so many reasons. There's the desperate attempts to make the demo album seem something more than just a piece of self-indulgent wonk, up there with the Melody Maker piece which hailed Lennon as a genius for a brave new album which turned out to be the test signal sent out in error:

is latest wheeze in his seemingly endless desire to deconstruct his own pop celebrity is the release of Democrazy, one of the most extraordinarily non-commercial albums a major artist can ever have released.

Clearly not heard much of Prince's stuff.

Recorded last summer while on tour in America, it consists of a wasted-sounding Albarn warbling a bunch of improvised, unrehearsed and half-formed song ideas into a four-track tape machine in his hotel room. Untouched by subsequent studio tinkering, it’s not so much lo-fi as no-fi. The tracks can’t even really be called demos, for they’re several notches below even that level of non-sophistication. One of them is called ‘Half A Song’, which is a considerable exaggeration. Another track sounds like he’s recorded his hotel room door chime. On yet another, you hear what sounds like someone using the bathroom.

Erm... so, this is such a major leap forward it's a bit like that Richard Ashcroft video, then.

Albarn makes no effort to sing in tune and the lyrics are spontaneously random observations ("I was at the Niagara Falls today, and they really didn’t make me want to jump in, that’s good’). The instrumentation is rudimentary - acoustic guitar, melodica and up-turned wastepaper basket for percussion. He knows it’s going to alienate mainstream Blur fans, which is why the record is appearing on vinyl only in a limited edition of 5,000 copies. When his old Oasis enemies Noel and Liam hear it, they will fall about laughing, convinced Albarn has finally lost his marbles.
And yet there’s another view. Listen closely and you can detect how these inchoate ideas could easily be worked up into mature songs, for within them are snatches of great tunes and cleverly inventive rhythms bursting with imagination. It’s maddening to hear them left so undeveloped. But then you realise that every great Blur song from ‘Country House’ to ‘Beetlebum’ must have started life like this. And heard in that context, Democrazy is a fascinating insight into the raw stuff of the creative process.

Except, of course, the Blur classics would all have had a significant input from Graham Coxon. And, we suspect, Dave going "sounds a bit wanky, Dame..." It carries on like this, even past the point where even Damon must have been wondering if Nigel Williamson had lost his marbles, too:

Whether you regard it as hugely audacious or incredibly self-indulgent will depend on your view of Albarn. But few artists of similar stature can ever have exposed themselves quite so fearlessly. When I first heard Democrazy, I was shocked by its nakedness and his neck-on-the-block bravery in releasing it. So when I spoke to him on the way to a Blur gig in Madrid, I felt compelled to ask what on earth had possessed him

You would be compelled, Nigel, who wouldn't be compelled to ask someone so bravely exposing themselves in the full public glare of a 5,000 record pressing (=2000 to the media, 2000 to the shops, 1000 held back to sell at inflated 'rarity' prices on Ebay).

Luckily, Damon is still being brave and can come up with an answer:

"It’s a mad idea, I know," he answered. "But I felt it was time people should put records out like this because it deconstructs everything the music industry has built up. I didn’t pre-write anything at all. I just turned the tape on and ran with what ever came into my head. So it’s all first takes and it’s amazing what you can come up with."

Now, at this point any decent music journalist would be punching him and asking why he believes his first drafts are in any way interesting - it's like going into a bakers and getting given some half-mixed dough with some Banana Corn Flakes in it - "Yeah, I just ran with whatever went in my head and wanted to deconstruct the bread-making process." But Nigel knows he is in the presence of an Artist, so he nods, and goes 'mmm', adjusts his bow tie and continues:

The record is not coming out on EMI’s Parlophone label, Blur’s regular corporate home, but on Albarn’s own boutique imprint, Honest Jon’s. What does EMI think of it? "Well record companies are bound to get terribly nervous about something like this," he concedes. "That’s why it’s coming out in a very limited way. I don’t want to upset people because I know they’ll find it hard to listen to. But there are tunes there that you could turn into hits. I thought it would be really interesting to show people a whole side to the music-making process they never get to hear. I hope this gives other artists the confidence to do it. I’d like to make it a series."

Here's an idea for you Damon... why not turn the tunes into hits, rather than sticking out the Look Around You guide to the artistic process? I mean, if you want to make stuff like that available, fine - shove it on your website; a hell of a lot of artists do (perhaps they don't realise they're being brave?) but they don't expect an already heavily put-upon market to fork out for their doodles. But then again, they think they're just sharing their new ideas with their fans, rather than bravely exposing the music making process.

That Albarn has emerged as the smartest and most adventurous British pop star of the past 10 years has caught many by surprise. At the time of Britpop, he appeared just another brash and bumptious pop star with plenty of flash and attitude. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker was widely held to be the cleverest of the Britpop crew, the ‘arty one’ who was most likely still to be making interesting records in 20 years time. Yet disappointingly, Cocker has come up with little of note since his 1995 Mercury Prize-winning album Different Class and it has been Albarn who has enthusiastically expanded his musical horizons far beyond the insular world of Britpop.
Unlike Suede, Pulp and Oasis, all of whom have seemed content to repeat themselves with ever diminishing returns, Albarn sees music as "a journey". "The day Blur make an album that’s not better than the last one is the day we quit," he says. "I get impatient with people who repeat themselves because if you have to do that it means you didn’t say it clearly enough the first time. You have to go out and find your sense of identity as a musician. I’m still looking for that and I expect I’m going to spend my whole life doing it. I don’t think you ever arrive. But hopefully through that process of searching, you find yourself.

So, even by the most generous standards, Blur should have split when the turgid Thirteen came out - although some people will argue that 'Blur' was so inferior to all their previous product that this would have been the point when Damon called it a day. What's curious is Williamson's strange belief that Suede and Pulp are still repeating themselves - maybe he hadn't realised Pulp split up two years ago and Suede have gone since, and a man whose musical acuity is such that he thinks he's lucky to be made to listen to a ripped faux cockney pissing, banging a wastepaper basket and mumbling like a six year-old dictating a 'What I Did On My Holidays' essay can hardly be expected to see the differences and development between, say, My Legendary Girlfriend and Trees; or Metal Mickey and Obsessions. Or maybe Nigel can, but he's just too drunk on being near Damon, this latter day DaVinci, to care.

Then came Think Tank, which confirmed his capacity to absorb new ideas and come up sounding fresh and different every time. Yet when his non-Blur activities are referred to as side-projects, he’s swift to issue a correction. "To me it’s all music and all the records I make are equally valid. I like white rock music. But its insularity sometimes annoys me. There’s a much bigger world of music out there and it’s shortsighted and blinkered not to embrace it."
Today Albarn looks back on the chirpy cockney character of Blur’s earlier work with something approaching distaste. He dismisses Parklife as "a joke, a satirical record that should be filed in the record shop under comedy, alongside Monty Python".

Hmmm. Interesting. Makes you wonder why they're still dragging Phil Daniels up on stage for a knees up, then. Or is it just that he finds the songs distasteful, but quite likes the noise they make when they're converted into pound coins?

But even Williamson can't have the stars dazzle his eyes to the missing facet of Blur:

The singer himself insists Blur are a democracy. But he appears to contradict this view when I ask him about Coxon’s departure.
"We weren’t fighting. But Graham got to a position where he just wasn’t comfortable with me calling the shots," he says. "That’s why he’s not in the band any more. He wanted to call his own shots, which is fair enough. For me it was no shock when we came to the parting of ways."

Hang about... Nigel suddenly realises that that may have sounded like a criticism of the Great Man. He quickly clarifies his thoughts:

The rest of the band sensibly know it’s in all their interests to let Albarn push Blur in whatever new directions he thinks fit. As Rowntree puts it: "You have to have one person who enjoys standing up there and saying, ‘Look at me.’"

Ah, yes, Damon may rule with a rod of an iron, but what a lucky band they are with such a leader to follow. Dave and Alex are like little elves at play, overseen by their mighty brained father figure. All Hail Damon! All Hail The Sweet Leader!

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