With their sophomore album, Blur take a giant step forward. As described in the first entry of Dissecting the Discography: Blur, Leisure lacked focus, and by trying to cash in on the Madchester scene of the time, while attempting to reconcile that with their more guitar oriented sound, it came across as very unbalanced. Modern Life is Rubbish, on the other hand, is a finely tuned tonal shift for Blur. The dance beats, the psychedelic vibes, and the faded , off the cuff vocals are replaced by a more straightforward pop rock sound, with catchy hooks, sweet guitar riffs, and a definite sense of purpose. In fact, this album feels like a reaction to the hugely popular grunge scene in the US. While the lyrical content on Modern Life is Rubbish is dark and melancholy, it's presented with a grin, rather than a snarl, and sounds brighter than its grunge brethren. In short, this album feels very British. Hence, Britpop was born.
The first track "For Tomorrow", sets the stage for a concept album, albeit a loosely conceived one, about feeling detached from everyday life in the 20th century. Albarn creates a number of characters that are holding on, barely, as they try to keep their lives intact. They are not living in the present, but existing for the future.
Characters such as the Pay-Me Girl and Peeping Thomas from "Chemical World/Intermission" are down on their luck, alone, and looking for comfort in manufactured, commercial substances (chocolate and sugary tea, in this case). Colin Zeal, in the track appropriately titled "Colin Zeal", strives to become the quintessential modern man (affable, impeccably dressed, well spoken, always on time), but fails to realize how unhappy this makes him, despite constantly patting himself on the back ("he's pleased with himself, he's pleased with himself, he's pleased with himself ah ha").
There's no real reason to change, though, according to standout track "Blue Jeans". In fact, Albarn and his characters derive pleasure from their pain. They are addicted to this modern life and find a degree of comfort in the emptiness it brings. Despite wearing "blue blue jeans everyday", Albarn confesses:
While Albarn's lyrics are at the forefront this record, they depend on Coxon's guitars. Whether he's laying down a wall of distortion and riffing out on "Villa Rosie" and "Star Shaped", working with hypnotic effects on "Oily Water" and "Pressure on Julian", or playing straightforward rhythm guitar on "For Tomorrow" and "Blue Jeans", Coxon's guitar work captures the essence of Albarn's lyrics perfectly and really sets the tone for each song.
Not everything about Modern Life is Rubbish is stellar, however. The first half of the record is near perfect, but the latter half begins to lose focus. "Miss America", Turn It Up", and "Resigned/Commercial Break" aren't even worth mentioning, except to say they feel like b-sides, at best.
On the whole, Modern Life is Rubbish is a strong album that firmly establishes Albarn and Coxon as a fierce songwriting duo. If this is Britpop, I love it.
Overall Grade = 7.5 out of 10
Like the rest of the album, the covert art is a vast improvement over its predecessor. The train, due to the invention of the steam engine, is a symbol of the industrial revolution, which was essentially the beginning of modern life as we know it.
Next Installment = Park Life