The debut LP from Blur divided critics on its release, contains tracks that haven’t survived the test of time, and has even received criticism from frontman Damon Albarn. Why then, have we nominated it as a classic album? Read on to find out how this often overlooked album helped to define an era of shifting musical tastes, capturing a band at the nascent first flush of their career, and laying the foundation for a sound that was to come to dominate a decade.
Kicking off with the lead single, and tellingly one of only two tracks to make it onto their career-spanning Best Of, ‘She’s So High’ features a loosely picked, looping guitar riff very much in the mould of contemporaries The Charlatans and a limited repetition of just a half dozen lines for a vocal. As one of the first tracks the band had written, dating back to ‘88 or ‘89, it featured contributions from all four band members as writers. As an opening statement to a debut record it is immediately catchy, drawing a line back through the late-80s Madchester/Baggy scene of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays et al. while also capturing a hint of the Shoegaze scene the band found themselves on the fringes of at the time.
Allegedly written in just fifteen minutes after their record label bosses told the band that the album needed another single, ‘Bang’ quickly disappeared from Blur live sets and failed to crack the Top 20 on release. Yet, in context of the album it makes more sense as an undemanding slice of energy with an instantly hooky melody. Drawing on a Stones Roses- esque riff, Albarn’s vocal delivery is focused and assured, pointing the way towards the more familiar sound he’d develop fully on sophomore release ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. Sadly, like many of the tracks on Leisure, it’s let down by its rather rudimentary lyrics.
Elsewhere, ‘There’s No Other Way’ was also released as a single and is, perhaps, the most recognisable track from the album having peaked at number eight in the charts. Featuring a choppy, rough guitar riff that would become a staple of Graham Coxon’s sound over the years, the propulsive sound hints at where the band would later go with tracks like ‘Girls & Boys’. In structure too, the track hints at a form that would be copied by British Indie groups through the mid-90s as breakdowns are filled with glitching guitar effects providing it with a longevity that allowed it to comfortably sit beside tracks by Radiohead as the decade progressed.
More interesting than these now familiar tunes is ‘Sing’, a six minute album centrepiece of atmospheric, Shoegaze guitar that reveals the band’s peripheral position in a burgeoning scene that included bands like My Bloody Valentine, Ride, and Slowdive. As the track slowly builds into a mass swell of distorted guitar it becomes clear how Blur wound up in the lineup of 1992s ‘Rollercoaster Tour’ alongside The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, and Dinosaur Jr. Looking back now, with full hindsight of the direction Blur would follow, their inclusion on said tour is barely comprehensible, yet in the wake of ‘Leisure’s release, the best tracks that weren’t released as singles are heavily indebted to rockier, rawer, and more atmospheric sounds.
The other track that helps cement this is ‘Come Together’. Opening with a thumping percussion and fuzz guitar riffs, even Albarn’s drawn out syllables fit the mould with the track sounding like a mashup of the three bands they would soon share a stage with. While it’d be remiss to say that these tracks stand up to the career defining works being released by both Dinosaur Jr and My Bloody Valentine at the time, both ‘Sing’ and ‘Come Together’ iare a perfect capsule of their time, and while ultimately an outlier in the wider Blur discography, are overlooked gems of a brief era of UK Indie that Blur themselves would help sweep away with Britpop.
Soon after the album’s release the band would find themselves on tour in the US; a tour that the band have famously described as a disaster. Missing home and feeling out of place in the US, Albarn has stated he made a clear decision to try and write songs that were more quintessentially English resulting in a seismic shift in their writing and the creation of what would become known as their Britpop sound. Thanks to this shift, Leisure has long been left out of discussion of Blur’s work, cast off as a faltering initial start usurped by their about face on followup ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’. This is a great disservice to the album and removes it from its context of time and place.
While Blur were always only on the periphery of the Shoegaze scene or as it was later snarkily called, “the scene that celebrates itself”, the music on Leisure fits within its styling but is clearly already yearning for something different. The Pop sensibility of Blur was often in sharp contrast to their contemporaries, even at this early stage, yet their earliest rockier moments, where Graham Coxon reached for his fuzz pedals, would years later be repurposed into the band’s biggest song with ‘Song 2’.
The downfall of Leisure is undoubtedly in part due to the stilted lyrics of a band still finding their way, but equally that band’s later success vastly overshadowed what was a worthy debut that should be revisited by fans and detractors alike.