Pain is pain, whether it hits you in the guts of the ghetto or the navel of the suburbs. Somehow by 1999 Blur were still having to deflect the ridiculous assumption that their class somehow made them out to be romantic poseurs rather than the soulful auteurs they actually were.
This view, usually held by middle class critics buried deep in the artifice of punk rock ethics was insulting on all grounds not least because by this time the band were creating some of the most beautiful and honest music of the whole period.
It was a time of Conrad type darkness for the band too. Heroin experimentation near alcoholism and in house fighting had them courting the duality of success and dangerous hedonism like the touch of a razorblade. It also gave them a crucial tension. When the walls started closing in they did what all great bands do. They attempted to write their way out of the danger and the murk with an honourable gusto.
Retiring to a studio as the century closed in they came up with arguably their best album to date. The resulting '13' was far from immediate but beneath its strange layers there were things going on that gave Blur a new silhouette shifting slyly away from their Britpop past. Both sonically and personally it seemed a seismic shift into more interesting waters. Gone was the pop sensibility and in its place came a widescreen coda. With producer William Orbit at the helm - ( the most sought after producer in the world at the time )it may have seemed a fashionable shift into the avant garde, but lyrically what lay beneath was rooted in simpler textures. Love. Loss and the death of the English dream. It gave the record a duality, making the listener aware that whatever weirdness was going on around it, deep in the songs there something much simpler occurring. An aching, not for narcissism or self gratification but for something much purer. The need for someone, whatever your riches or status, to tell you that everything is going to be alright.
Albarn had always sung songs like he was reading a stage direction of his life but there were things going on in his own that he couldn't shake off. Most notably a well publicised but fading relationship with Elastica singer Justine Frischmaan. It was with this stark reality that he would deliver an absolute masterpiece. It occurs towards the end of '13', running in at less that four minutes because that's all it needs. Over a gorgeous wash of Ry Cooder type blues it's a sophisticated piece of musicianship, that leaves the listener in no doubts to its melancholy motive. Even it's title is a statement of soulful intent. It's simply calked 'No Distance Left to Run.'
The opening lines to the song are amongst the most haunting ever delivered on the subject of lost love. Just like Joy Divisions 'why is your bedroom so cold?' Or Elvis' 'caught in a trap/I can't walk out', they cut away the cliches and the fat on the subject till all that's left is the blue centre light of authenticity beaming through. 'Its over/ you don't need to tell me/ I hope you're with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleep,' Albarn sings. It's the third line that's the killer too. For who hasn't felt like that? Stripped of the insecurities and petty jealousy of adolescence. Walking into the sunset alone but still kind of hoping the person left behind is going to be alright.
If there was any doubt to the validity of the statement - it should be noted that it was song that Albarn from its very onset found incredibly difficult to sing. For a frontman noted (perhaps unfairly) for his cool reserve as a frontman the fact that performance of the song pushed him out his comfort zone is also significant. In many ways however it was also true of the rest of the band. The recording of the '13' album in itself was a cathartic process right from the off. The shedding of several skins needed to keep the band alive. The ghost of Britpop. The battle of experimentation over legacy and the sense that Albarn might walk away from the band altogether if certain wounds weren't healed within the Blur framework. All of which at the time of recording were far from being resolved. In many ways in fact it was pretty much a crossroads for the band.
Blur would regroup again of course and Gorillaz loomed in the future for Albarn, whose re-invention would eventually become his greatest strength. Not that he was scared of opening himself up so raw again. Singers and artists don't need to constantly to perform public autopsies on themselves, they just need that one special moment that hits a home run to heart and glimpses at something bigger. In that sense 'no distance left to run' remains pretty much peerless from a band that was least expected to deliver such a bruised piece of rock poetry. And ended up releasing one of the best of them all.