Leisure, Blur’s 1991 debut album epitomises unfashionable today. Just look at the album cover. What’s she wearing? Or he? Weren’t Blur were good at album covers (see Parklife or Modern Life Is Rubbish)? What about the lyrics? As far as 90s bands go, Blur’s lyrics are generally quite memorable. In Leisure, each line barely manages more than three or four words, rarely anything more creative than ‘I can’t feel because I’m numb’ or ‘It’s my birthday, very strange day’.
Despite being well-received at the time, Leisure’s since been panned by pretty much all the critics that have reviewed it, with Damon Albarn himself calling it ‘awful’. It’s convenient for Albarn and others to dismiss it as Blur’s poor debut coming before they found their feet. Radiohead had Pablo Honey; even Bowie had a below-par first album…
Yet Leisure is actually a pretty good record in its own right.
A Blur fan, I’d collected all their other albums and thought I had to give it a go. At first I hated it. I punished myself on a beach in Anglesey one day, making myself listen to it over and over again, especially forcing myself to listen to Repetition, which I knew did exactly what it says on the tin. Then one day I got to like it. Something about the raw sound just clicked.
The catchiness of There’s No Other Way, the haziness of Bad Day, the adventurousness of Sing (which would later feature on the Trainspotting soundtrack), the hypnotic She’s So High. Okay, Birthday isn’t great, and you fear the album’s going to peter out in spite of Dave Rowntree’s burst of drumming towards the end of it, but Wear Me Down ensures they end on a high. The album doesn’t necessarily leave you wanting more. 50 minutes of it will do; but it’s something that’s easy to just drift off to.
Some have criticised Leisure for its Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine influences. Not that it’s ok to rip off bands that preceded you (are you listening Liam and Noel?) but that’s not what Blur were doing. Leisure came before they’d found their niche and what they were best at – the satirical commentary on English life endemic in their Britpop records – and they just experimented with styles and techniques of critically-acclaimed bands of that era.
In fact, the frosty reception Leisure got on their 1991 US tour, ‘Instilled in the band a contempt for anything American’, according to Q’s David Cavanagh, after they were disheartened with American audiences’ infatuation with grunge. Albarn listened to a Kinks tape throughout to nurse homesickness. Some may credit Leisure with leading to the invention of Britpop itself. Others will blame it for bringing the sound of some of the dreadful bands that inevitably came with it.
You can still hear some of the album in later tracks Pressure On Julian and Jubilee from Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife respectively. Albarn doesn’t quite take a backseat on Leisure, but you do notice more of Rowntree and Alex James’ funky drum and bass rhythms.
It’s a shame Leisure’s so overlooked, underrated and roundly criticised. But maybe that’s what makes it just so attractive for the few of us who can bear the baggy, shoegazer sound, the echoed lyrics and the teasingly fleeting glimpses of Graham Coxon’s intricacy and brilliance on guitars.
At this point, Blur had little to say but said it well.
More of Dogliani’s writing can be found at http://modern-life-rubbish.blogspot.com/