Blur’s massive box set arrives at a time when the Britpop icons are again on a career upswing. The group is headlining a sold-out concert at Hyde Park to close the 2012 London Summer Olympics and just released two new songs, “Under The Westway” and “The Puritan.” With Blur 21: The Box, the band cleans out its vaults: The 18 discs include all seven of Blur’s studio albums—each of which is packaged with a bonus disc of B-sides, demos, and live cuts—plus four more discs of rarities. (Über-fans will be pleased to note this includes the infamous aborted sessions with Andy Partridge for the album that would become Modern Life Is Rubbish. Judging by these three songs, the XTC majordomo wanted to remake Blur in his own likeness.)
That Blur would release such an extensive collection is somewhat surprising. As nostalgic as Blur’s music can feel—think the majestic, string-swept “The Universal,” the French-pop noir of “To The End,” or the Spiritualized-esque “Tender”—the band has never been particularly sentimental about its past. Each of its studio albums has a distinct personality and set of musical influences, as if the group was hell-bent on reinventing itself every few years. While Blur was always pitted against Oasis during Britpop’s heyday, in retrospect the band has far more in common with Radiohead, a peer fond of undergoing marked metamorphoses between albums.
Blur’s creative ambition was there from its inception. Although 1991’s primitive, psychedelic-tinged Leisure is beholden to the remnants of the Madchester/Baggy dance scene, 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish is a creative leap forward. Brimming with Technicolor pop, the record dabbles in the quirky character sketches favored by The Smiths and The Kinks, with an arch British attitude that would set the tone for Blur’s next few albums. 1994’s Parklife is another triumph, its social and political commentary—as well as swelling orchestras, loopy horns and giddy keyboards—rivaling Madness (and, to a lesser extent, XTC) in tone and style.
Jarringly, Blur’s final three studio albums largely eschew overtly British sensibilities and pop influences. 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13 reflect guitarist Graham Coxon’s interest in lo-fi guitar acts such as Pavement and Beck, while 2003’s electronic-focused Think Tank (which features minimal contributions from Coxon, who split from the band during the recording sessions) aligns with vocalist Damon Albarn’s then-nascent Gorillaz project. While this trio of records has moments of brilliance—among them the Bowie-esque folk lament “Strange News From Another Star,” the punk thrash of “We’ve Got A File On You,” and eager power-pop gem “M.O.R.”—more often they sound ragged and fractured, the sound of a band flailing to find a direction.
This growing discord correlates with the increased disenchantment and boredom evident in Blur’s lyrics. Although dissatisfaction with the modern world was always part of Albarn’s focus, 1995’s synth-pop-heavy The Great Escape portrays sad-sack citizens who can’t get ahead or find personal fulfillment. On subsequent albums, more and more bitterness creeps into this longing—from caustic social regret (“Death Of A Party”) to romantic vengeance (“1992”). Swan song Think Tank was even more glum, its apocalyptic bent and self-destructive references creating unsettling imagery. For a band whose biggest hits included a goofy synthpop jam (“Girls & Boys”) and a pogo-punk burst (“Song 2”), Blur could always turn shockingly dour.
Paradoxically, this tempered outlook has helped Blur’s music age well and kept it from becoming something best left in the past. Blur: 21 The Box, however, is probably only essential to the band’s hardcore fans. That’s not meant as a criticism of the compilation: The bonus material contains an abundance of amazing, weird, and brilliant moments. But the type of extras included—like a disc of demos from Blur’s early years, when the band went by Seymour—will likely only interest completists. Still, even the most obscure corners of the collection are valuable: Together, they create a thorough picture of just how Blur has survived 21 years—off and on—as a band with its popularity and integrity intact.