Release Date: Jul 28, 2009
Record label: Virgin
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
At first glance, Midlife seems like one of those hilariously ambitious compilation titles that bands use when they don't want to admit the game is up-- think every group in its commercial and/or creative decline that calls a best-of "volume one. " In Blur's case, the band's four original members have recorded exactly three new songs together this decade, and despite a recent run of successful reunion shows in the UK, they announced last week that they'd not be making new music as a quartet anytime soon. And judging by the tracklisting, they could have called this Midlife Crisis, as the compilation-- which eschews many of the group's biggest hits and best-known songs for album tracks-- finds them attempting to reshape their identity, reaching for the dronier, artier end of their catalog.
Released in conjunction with their 2009 reunion, the double-disc career retrospective Midlife emphasizes Blur's early psychedelic grind -- halfway between Syd Barrett and shoegazing -- along with their post-Brit-pop indie makeover, giving somewhat short shrift to the band's pop prime, cutting out four of the band's big hits ("There's No Other Way," "Country House," "End of the Century," and "Charmless Man") in favor of album tracks that play into the thesis that Blur were as somber and serious a guitar band as Radiohead. Of course, Blur did rival Radiohead, recording some of the greatest guitar rock of the '90s, but that was only one facet of the band: they were also a bright, artful pop band, cleverly twisting '60s traditions and post-punk styles into the present. Elements of this Blur are evident in "Girls & Boys" and "Parklife," hits so big they couldn't be ignored, and while Midlife could have used a heavier dose of this side of Blur, there's not a bad track here, and the set also brings their glorious, epoch-creating single "Popscene" back into circulation, so Midlife has some considerable value even if it avoids too many highlights to truly be "A Beginner's Guide to Blur" as its subtitle claims.
In 2000, Blur released The Best of Blur, an 18-song set that represented the band's '90s peak, with all the hits included. Midlife, released in conjunction with the band's U.K. reunion concerts, totals 25 tracks and avoids some of the hits that were represented on The Best of Blur ("There's No Other Way," "Country House," "Charmless Man," "End of a Century").
There’s an almost knee-jerk reaction against greatest-hits albums among people who care about such things, and for good reason: They’re mostly terrible. They’re a way to sell the same fans the same music twice (or thrice). And they often remove songs of their context within an album, which is something that matters to a lot of fans. And that’s how discussion around Midlife: A Beginner’s Guide to Blur is probably going to be framed, especially since the band released a greatest-hits/live comp just nine years ago (Blur: Best Of).
It never seemed like Blur had much of a problem balancing their artier and poppier sides, but those sensibilities are engaged in a full-on battle on the bricolage compilation Midlife. Designed to be more of a career overview than a “hits” collection, Midlife is a bit of a mess. Sure, Blur were at times all over the map, but this two-disc set actually accentuates the incongruities of their occasional diversity by odd selection choices, bizarre sequencing, and about as much focus as a shuffle button.