Some people get over heartbreak like they get over not having enough cheese in the fridge to make a whole portion of cheese on toast. Upsetting as that is – what’s the point of cheese on toast if you can’t slather the entire slice in hot, bubbling cheddar? – it’s not the end of the world. They wake up the next day, ready to waltz back into the dating game and already unable to remember what their previous flame’s face looked like. But some people prey on it for months. Even when it’s been over for months, they’ll still find themselves name-dropping so-and-so and using ‘that total bastard’ as an epithet for said heartbreaker. Damon Albarn had a reason for being melancholy over Justine Frischmann – they’d been together for eight years, he’d stuck with her through her addictions, and then as soon as she got clean, she ditched him. But instead of sobbing over Elastica’s first album or having an uplifting pep talk from Graham Coxon, he wrote 13. 13 is an album that in its 66 minutes manages to echo every molecule of heartbreak that the more attached of us endure after Heartbreaker utters those awful words, “You’re not really my type…”.
It’s by far their least accessible album, and many critics have pejoratively labelled it “messy”. It is messy, but that’s because heartbreak is a messy feeling – it’s a patchwork of emotions, which is how I like to interpret the random riffs at the end of 13’s songs. It also sounds completely different from the laddish joviality of Parklife, the resigned eye-rolling of Modern Life Is Rubbish and the detached cool of Blur – all brilliant, with even the latter being mostly straightforward. Only its closer, ‘Essex Dogs’, hints at how thrillingly deranged 13 is going to be. But it still takes you by surprise. My first reaction to the whole album was “What the hell was that?”. But now I know it was the sound of heartbreak; something that Mogwai blasted after the album’s release in 1999. They referred to Blur using the heartbreak angle to get sales as “disgusting”* – completely bypassing the fact that a lot of artists have used heartbreak to write and sell songs, just so they could sell some t-shirts with the slogan “Blur are shite” on them. Using a feud with another band to sell some merchandise – who’s “disgusting” now?
But don’t get the impression that this is an album of Albarn sobbing about Frischmann’s lipstick marks still being on her coffee cup, a la Take That. It’s more than that – and it’s indefinitely more subtle. This isn’t merely about feeling sorry for yourself and wondering how you’ll ever trust anyone again. This album details the type of heartbreak that makes you drift through months feeling everything and nothing, by turns crazed and numb by insomnia, feeling hollow after another 3am crying session. It also follows the attempts to get out of that rut – the days where you wonder how you ever let it get to you like that, feel empowered enough to delete their messages, and go out with your friends to forget your troubles… but then find yourself feeling maudlin in a corner as you realise nothing’s changed. Don’t worry, it has a happy ending! This album is the musical equivalent of (500) Days of Summer, something you’ll realise after you’ve got over the fact that it sounds crazy on first listen.
It begins by wrong-footing you with a soundtrack to a hand-holding group therapy session, one where you’d say “Hi, I’m ___ and I’m a loveaholic!”. But ‘Tender’, with its gospel choir and self-motivating lyrics, is more sincere than hippy hugs, plus it probably smells better. The choir in particular bestows it with an evangelical quality in the best possible sense; it’s so upbeat and positive that you want to join their chirpy, ‘it’s going to be ok!’ cult that never sounds annoying. It’s a great mood booster on a bad day, or for dispelling pre-exam demons. Except it’s all a brave face. The facade is uncovered as soon as Damon croons after three minutes that “Tender is my heart, you know, for screwing up my life…”. Soon after, “Kill me” is added to the “Oh my baby…” Graham Coxon parts. He’s not really a happy hippy after all! You’ve been misled! How cruel! And it doesn’t get any simpler on the next song…
I once read that ‘Bugman’ is about child molestation. But I’m going to go with an interpretation of it being about avoiding the love ‘bug’ and going out to fill the void that a break-up has left (“I got no sense of existence”) while denying that the relationship ever had merits (“I think I was in a coma”) before the song launches into a deranged Pixies-esque guitar part which perfectly embodies the broken mind of the heartbroken wannabe-hedonist, going out to drown their sorrows. Just as you’re beginning to adjust to the wailing guitar feedback, it turns into a stoner soundtrack and Damon falsettoing “Space is the place…” over the top, and then you find yourself dragged back into more familiar Blur territory with ‘Coffee & TV’, a nice little number with an indescribably charming video which calls for your ex and you to “start over again”, imploring her to “take me away from this big bad world and agree to marry me”. Judging by the return to rocking on ‘Swamp Song’, replete with woozily hedonistic shrieks of “Stick it in my veins!”, one can only imagine this proposal didn’t materialise. And then we get onto the first truly, gut-wrenchingly emotive song on the album, ‘1992’.
‘1992’ is an unbelievably depressing song. From the quiet, wounded singing voice to the muttered fragments of betrayal (“You loved my bed/You took the other instead”), begging for an apology (“What do you owe me?/The price of your peace of mind”), to the wavering, screeching guitars that kick in around the two-minute mark, it’s impossible to remain unmoved by it – if it is possible, I’d recommend you don’t go near any magnets, because you’re clearly a robot. Just how emotive the guitars manage to be during the whole album is incredible – it takes the pressure off the lyrics, taking all the parts that would make them an angst-fest and translating them into a sound of sheer despair. In the same way that classical music and Icelandic post-rock bands can build musical landscapes and emotions without words, so these three minutes of guitar make you feel like you’re drowning under the weight of someone else’s/your own [delete where appropriate] melancholy, which is both suffocating and beautiful. Before you can go hunting in the cutlery drawers for some emotastic relief, though, you’re disarmed by the sudden energy of ‘B.L.U.R.E.M.I.’, which bops around partly to dissipate its predecessor’s misery, and partly as a representation of an ‘up’ day when you wake up feeling more real than you have in three weeks, ready to take on the workload that piled up whilst you were spending your days listlessly ploughing through multiple episodes of Peep Show, because even being Mark from Peep Show is better than being a heartbroken zombie like you.
‘Battle’ is a languid ambient piece that, to me, innately sounds like empty nights out when you’re jigging along unenthusiastically to the worst songs in history as the lights unrelentingly flicker above you, and yet you don’t leave because, even though all this is so meaningless, it’s got to be better to feel numb here than feel everything all over again in your room… though this is an incredibly subjective and personalised view. It’s followed by ‘Mellow Song’ – in my opinion the worst song on the album – with self-reflective lyrics (“Running away in my machine/Where have I been…/Is this where I’m going to?”) and, true to its title, a mellow ambience. A moment of epiphany? It’s hard to tell whether he’s miserable, detached or deadpan mad in ‘Trailerpark’. His constant refrain of “I’m a country boy/I got no soul/I don’t sleep at night/The world’s growing old/I lost my girl to The Rolling Stones/I lost my girl to The Rolling Stones” is tragicomic, not to mention the first absolutely explicit reference to Frischmann – ‘The Rolling Stones’ being a reference to how her life began to resemble the infamous Mick Jagger-starring film Performance.
The following two tracks are, along with ‘Tender’, the highlight tracks on the album, albeit for entirely different reasons. I would be entirely happy to listen to the opening 2 minutes of ‘Caramel’ on a loop forever. As the pining guitars in the intro fade out and an organ becomes the song’s sole focus, it sounds as though the song is being recorded at an evening Mass with candles. Albarn’s voice, vulnerable and quiet, sounds like he’s confessing to the guiltiest secret of all – what we knew all along; that he has “to get over” his heartbreak. The church-factor is added to by his piety towards the ex, and self-flagellation of his own flaws (“I’ve gotta stop smoking/I’ve gotta get better”). As it progresses, there are traces of ‘1992’’s guitar-misery, until it becomes explicit after four minutes, with guitars screaming as though some aching wound has been opened and lemon juice squeezed into it. As Albarn chants “Low, low, low…”, a broken-hearted listener can only feel similar despair. The motorbike sound and funky riff at the end bridges the leap from kneeling on the tiles of a church floor to a night out on the tiles; ‘Trimm Trabb’ is a cynical perspective on a night out, alcohol and fitting in with the crowd by owning the right kind of trainers (the title being a brand of trainers), and essentially, it’s unbelievably cool. No longer do we have the anaesthesia of ‘Battle’: the disparaging commentary of the other revellers is indicative of ‘waking up’ after drifting. All interpretation pontification aside, though, it just sounds incredibly cool and makes you want to walk through your hometown with sunglasses and a leather jacket on, pretending you’re James Bond.
‘No Distance Left To Run’, the penultimate track, was difficult for Albarn to record, saying that “It upset me singing it… To sing that lyric I really had to accept that that was the end of something in my life.” Listening to it, you can see why; it’s soothingly lullaby-like, but the lyrics are uncompromising – “It’s over, you don’t need to tell me/I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe when you’re sleeping tonight/I won’t kill myself trying to stay in your life/I’ve got no distance left to run”. He sounds so defeated and exhausted by his attempts to woo her back, party the memory of rejection away and get over her that you’ll probably feel a strange compulsion to hug him and sing ‘Tender’ to up his mood. Considering it’s such a downer (but a genuinely touching one, something that My Chemical Romance haven’t quite managed yet), you’d think that the album ends on a miserable note – but ‘Optigan 1’, the album’s weird and wonderful wordless closer, proves you wrong. Although it’s really just some weird noises and a bell tolling that together make a strangely ethereal effect, it somehow manages to convince you that everything’s ok in the end and you can float off, enlightened by the whole crappy experience of Being Rejected/Dumped™.
Laugh at my attempts to transcribe the feelings and concepts in the album all you want, but don’t rubbish them until you’ve really listened to ‘13’. Once you’ve felt Albarn-Frischmann-esque heartbreak, there’s nothing flimsy about those interpretations. If you find yourself at uni, away from the friends you’d normally use as free therapists, and discover that the ones you’ve made on campus don’t quite get why you’re still sit-in-your-room-thinking-about-what-if-I’d-done-this-differently miserable six weeks after the betrayal/rejection, this album’s the best you’re going to get as far as support is concerned. It’s one of those albums where you truly do feel like the songs apply to you. At least, that’s what I found, and I’m sure I’m not the first or last to think that. And, seeing as I’m not sure I’ve done the album justice by concentrating on just the misery and confusion aspects of it, let me say one last thing before I finally shut up; this is a bloody brilliant album. If Mogwai listened to Parklife and then listened to this, they wouldn’t come back saying “Blur are shite”. That much, I guarantee.