Album review: Modern Life is Rubbish // Blur


In 1992, Blur hit a snag in their career trajectory. Although their debut album Leisure (1991) garnered them substantial recognition (the LP reached number seven in the charts), the project was met with mixed responses. Primarily criticised for its dependency on the madchester sound that was deemed passé by that point, Leisure was far from the ideal advert of a band that would later be one of the quintessential British acts of the nineties. The band had to go back to the drawing board by 1992, given that they were in £60,000 debt and their American tour was such a failure that it left them disillusioned with the States altogether.

In an interview with the NME in 2013, lead singer Damon Albarn said that their sophomore album, Modern Life is Rubbish (1993), was a response to their failed American tour: a prophetic vision of the oncoming “Americanisation” of England at that point, the disintegration of a culture. Although now, as it hits thirty, MLIR is considered a prelude to the Britpop phenomenon of the mid nineties, the album was purely an exploration of the world as the band saw it. Drawing from British pop legends such as The Kinks, The Jam, and The Small Faces, Blur produced an album that would characterise their sound, whose sentiments perhaps resonate now more than it did in 1993. Modern Life is Rubbish made the vision of Blur crystal clear.

The LP depicts the tedious and coarse realities of modern life in London through a series of mood-altering sounds. Lead guitarist Graham Coxon has admitted that he wished to have the sound on the album reflect the maniacs that London was filled with during the time – and it sure does: the album traverses an assortment of styles such as music hall (‘Sunday Sunday’), punk (‘Advert’), and neo-psychedelia (‘Chemical World’, ‘Oily Water’). 

The lead single ‘For Tomorrow’ is a microcosm of the whole project. Rightfully the opener, the track carries a glam rock edge with Albarn’s vocal delivery reminiscent of David Bowie circa 1971-72, with lush strings that colour the song, heightening its melodic grandeur. It’s a delightful presentation of the sickening humdrum of an ordinary day where boys and girls are “holding on for tomorrow”, a better, brighter tomorrow. 

The first half of the album is very enjoyable. ‘Colin Zeal’ draws upon the spirit of The Kinks’ ‘Well Respected Man’ (1965), with Albarn sarcastically portraying the self-certain, high-earning man who tends to frequent the city’s heart (“He’s Colin Zeal and he knows”). ‘Blue Jeans’ is a ballad where the banal aspects of everyday life such as shopping for your preferred blue jeans are insignificant compared to being with the love of your life. It carries a sleepy, seductive quality that I dare say foreshadows such singles in the band’s catalogue such as ‘Beetlebum’ (1997). The lyrics are beautifully simple and sweet, augmented by the orgasmic harmonies (that decrescendo on the hook especially!). Dave Rowntree’s syncopated drumming is welcome and dependable á la Charlie Watts of Rolling Stones’ fame. 

The album’s second single, ‘Chemical World’, is the Coxon show. Another song where the dreary routines of modernity are catalogued (and perhaps its level of pollution?), its sound is anything but: the watery guitar tone is unmistakable and Coxon’s excessive hammer-ons at the chorus has a Pete Townshend (The Who) flavour to it. Bassist Alex James deserves praise too, because his bassline is instrumental in establishing the track’s groove. It’s a finely mixed track where the acoustic guitar provides a muscular quality that engages the agreeable sounds in the vocals and lead guitar. Irrespective of the vagueness of the lyrics at times (“they’re putting the holes in”?), ‘Chemical World’ is one of Blur’s best songs. 

The album does lag in the second half. It’s clear Blur weren’t seasoned in the studio game at this point because from ‘Sunday, Sunday’ onwards the tracks do get dicey, despite the great sounds found here and there. Songs like ‘Villa Rosie’ and ‘Turn It Up’ though catchy, don’t add too much to the overall project: the former is about the ritual heavy drinking after a day’s work, whilst the latter is full of lyrical nonsense (“kazoo, kazoo, you are mine”). Although ‘Villa’’s place on the album is apt conceptually, the song lacks the urgency of the tracks found on the first half. 

‘Coping’ is a track that has Blur tipping their hat to XTC (though their influence is more pronounced on the demo version) and, again, very hooky, but at its point in the album (track 13) its melodies are tiresome, especially given that the lyrics aren’t too memorable either. 

Overall though, Modern Life is Rubbish was a quantum leap in Blur’s career. Reaching number 15 in the UK charts, the band’s approach to music on the LP would be perfected on Parklife (1994), their breakthrough (and best) album. Arguably this album is in their top three: it’s more consistent than their overrated 1997 self-titled album, more jubilant (ironically) than The Great Escape (1995), and projects like Leisure, Think Tank (2003), and Magic Whip (2015) are typically not in the running for best Blur LP – and understandably so. 

Modern Life is Rubbish is an inherently British album about the disintegration of the quality of life in London, a response to the increasing cultural homogeneity, demonstrated in people’s social apathy, or indulgence in addictions, or fixation on “grabbing the bag”. I agree: modern life is indeed rubbish, and Blur’s album, thirty years on, melodically reminds us of this truth. 

Words by Keith Mulopo

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  1. Modern life is Rubbish is and always will be, the best album by Blur. Great memories of my teenage years listening to this


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