March 23, 1999: Not a day typically worth noting unless you were from Paraguay and found that your vice president had been assassinated. But even that isn't worth mentioning because, really, a vice president is merely a decorative piece in any government. The only truly exciting event of that day in 1999 was the release of Blur's sixth album 13. Okay, so maybe only the British were excited. After "Song 2" came out in 1997, American audiences seemd to lose interest. Nonetheless, considering the music available during the last stretch of the nineties, I would think a person of any nationality would be absolutely giddy about the prospect of some decent beats.
It is no secret that 13 was an album strictly devoted to the lament of lead singer Damon Albarn over his breakup with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann. Each track is in some way devoted to the turmoil and eventual demise of their relationship. "Coffee and TV" is the sole song that has nothing to do with Damon and Justine, mainly because guitarist Graham Coxon wrote the lyrics and music.
For many, 13 was not exactly viewed as a commercial triumph. A critical triumph, maybe, but it did not capture the same mass audience that their previous self-titled album Blur achieved. Justine Frischmann cruelly remarked that Albarn's artistic exploration of the breakup was an exercise in self-involvement and that few people would take an interest in their personal lives. Perhaps there is a degree of truth to this, but if a musician cannot draw from agonizing personal experiences, that really only leaves him lyrics about the magicality of drugs and possibly a half-hearted political message.
13 undoubtedly bolstered the perceptible rift that had been growing between Albarn and Coxon. It was the first time the band had decided not to work with producer Stephen Street. Instead, William Orbit, known for his ambient, though danceable, sound, was brought in to produce the album. The difference in musical sensibilities between Coxon and Albarn became irrevocably apparent as a result. Albarn increasingly gravitated toward an electronic sound, while Coxon remained loyal to the lo-fi sound that begat Blur in the first place.
The question is, was the creation of this album worth the personal strife it caused to the band? The songs "B.L.U.R.E.M.I.," "Trimm Trabb," "Coffee and TV," and "No Distance Left to Run" would have one believe that it was. And even though Blur is largely regarded as a band to be relegated into the alternative sound that dominated the nineties, 13 proved that they were capable of much more. The fact that it was released in 1999 was in some ways a signal of the end of the era of Blur.
After 13, Blur released Think Tank in 2003 sans a musically chagrined Graham Coxon. The moment Albarn announced his intentions to bring Fatboy Slim into the project, Coxon bailed, unwilling to compromise his vision of the band. In many respects Think Tank is a sequel to the experimental sound of 13 and, though it is an album that holds up just as well when compared to their prior work, Think Tank lacked the spark, the raw emotion contained within the tracks of 13.
So, ten years later, 13 still seems to be one of the more underrated Blur albums, but the cohesive theme and sound might one day be appreciated once Blur fans and casual listeners face the harsh reality that Blur may not ever get back together, leaving 13 to be revisited in order to whet the appetite of nineties musicphiles.