Lee Hazlewood: 13

Blur has given up a lot to get to 13, its latest and strangest album. There are the catchy melodies, for one thing; the sharp, sardonic, Kinks-worthy lyrics, for another. There's also the group's smart, lager-drinking-lads-about-London image and an ensuing, largely media-created Blur/Oasis rivalry to determine who best represented the face of Britpop. So, if very little of what made the group Blur to begin with remains, what's left? Judging from 13, a sound that's interesting in its own right. Of course, the record doesn't come entirely by surprise. Blur's self-titled 1997 album, inspired by guitar-driven American indie-rock, itself moved pretty far away from the band's past. But, in addition to living up to its ambitions, it did have a fair number of tracks old fans could latch on to, as well as that ingratiating "woo-hoo" song. Not so 13. Only listeners anticipating a nearly eight-minute, gospel-styled number, one of which ("Tender") serves as the opening track, will find the album instantly accessible. It gets more peculiar from there. The fuzzed-out, fast-paced "Bugman" comes next, followed by "Coffee & TV," which sounds like a pop song, but not for long. Other equally disarming tracks follow, including the deceptively titled "Mellow Song" and the shifty "Trailerpark," with its drum machine, blooping electronic noise, and cryptic "I lost my girl to The Rolling Stones" chorus. (Lost loves populate 13, reportedly due to frontman Damon Albarn's troubled split with Elastica's Justine Frischmann.) After making Madonna respectable again, producer William Orbit seems to be aiming for the opposite effect here, turning Blur into something greatly at odds with what listeners expect. But 13 has much more going for it than shock value. As disparate as its content may be, the tone Orbit and the band create remains consistent: It's washed-out and melancholy, but also struggling for more. At first listen, it may be hard to figure out whether 13 is some sort of twisted masterpiece or the work of a once-great group losing the plot. Those who stick around to find out will be rewarded.

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