Two years on, it is a very different Albarn who sits in the St John's ambulance room at the Cambridge Junction rock venue. It's a couple of hours before the warm-up gig for Blur's first British tour since 1995. After more than a year out of the public eye, the band's comeback single "Beetlebum" has just gone to No 1, and they are about to release an album so musically adventurous that even those previously immune to their charms will struggle not to be thrilled by it. In these circumstances you might expect Albarn to be bullishness incarnate. Instead, he has the thoughtful, chastened air of a man who has discovered that all actions have consequences.
"You get to the point, when you really are top dog," he observes ruefully, "where you start to think everything in the culture revolves around you." This newly courteous, self-effacing Albarn, exuding charm and intelligence from every pore, is so different to the puffed up monkey boy of old that it seems churlish to even bring up past misdemeanours. But you can't properly appreciate the significance of Blur's position today without fully understanding the dark place in which they've spent the last 18 months.
On the face of it, nothing that bad has happened. So they got their noses metaphorically bloodied by Oasis, and their last album, The Great Escape, was not the world-conquering success it might have been. But it still sold more than a million copies, and as problems go, that is not the worst. What were the roots, then, of what Albarn has described as a "young man's menopause" and a "prolonged, subtle depression"? Quite simply, his band's name became a shorthand for everything that was wrong with British music: insular, empty, vainglorious... and it wasn't just unsympathetic critics who thought this. It only took one look at the band's faces as they tore up songs from The Great Escape on Later and TFI Friday at the end of 1995 to see that Blur thought so too.
Despite being a hit single, there was something severely awry with a song like "Stereotype". Here was a supposed master of contemporary lyric- writing, in the mid-1990s, singing a song about wife-swapping. Whatever next, instant mashed potato and the demise of the feather cut? Heads in the clouds of irresponsible hedonism, Blur seemed to have lost all contact with reality. Albarn himself now describes "Charmless Man", another song from The Great Escape, as "the work of someone who was severely fucked up. Where is it coming from?" he bemoans despairingly. "It's got nothing to do with anything..."
The very public ugliness of the Blur/Oasis feud only threw Blur's problems into sharper relief. "That whole business was fuelled by very specific things between me and the two [Gallagher] brothers," Albarn observes enigmatically, "which on their behalf it would not be fair to talk about." Surely he can do a bit better than that? "There was a time early on in their career when we were very beneficial to them and they just never reciprocated. That was why we put the single ["Country House"] out the same week as theirs, because there had been quite a few occasions - silly little things like going to the party when they had their first No 1, just to say, 'Well done lads,' and being really made to feel like shits when you would have thought they'd have gone, 'Cheers, let's have a drink'."
Blur won what the tabloids termed the battle of the bands - as the post- industrial music hall of "Country House" beat the lumpen swagger of Oasis's "Roll With It" to the No 1 spot - and then lost the war, as the stratospheric sales of Oasis's (What's the Story) Morning Glory? left The Great Escape for dead. The severity of the critical, tabloid and popular backlash which followed was something Albarn "could never have expected in a million years". He pauses. "Well, I suppose in some ways I should've. It was pretty obvious that in the context of being working-class heroes, Oasis were far closer than us to what the tabloids perceived as being authentic."
The dispute over authenticity - that Blur were art-school boys slumming it - was at the heart of many objections to what pop historians will come to call the band's "cockney exploitation" period. "If you look at 'Parklife' and 'Girls and Boys' [both from the Parklife album], which are the two songs that really moved us into the public eye, they're both quite odd really, and that's what we always were... this great big soup just got reduced - boiled down - to this stock, which wasn't us at all." He laughs. "We were the soup and Oasis were the stock."
He can laugh about it now, but when Albarn first started writing the songs which now feature on Blur's fifth album, helpfully entitled Blur (Parlophone, out next week), the band had fallen apart to the extent that he thought it would end up being his first solo record. This time last year, Blur were, by his own admission, "on the point of splitting up". But then, somehow, they put themselves back together, and did so with a style and grace that must be the envy of their peer group in the new British pop-culture aristocracy. (The truth is that all the Cockers, Hirsts, Welshes, Coogans, Izzards - hell, even the Gallaghers of this world - are likely to have to go through something like this at some stage in the next few years.)
Ever the cultural magpie, Albarn bought himself a flat in Iceland, and began to reassemble his life with the aid of an obscure Native American cleansing ritual. "It's like a sauna in a tepee," he enthuses. "It's about three hours long: heat is generated from hot stones and you do a lot of singing - calling on new spirits and sending off old ones." Back in England, he also sought succour in the discipline of Tae Kwon Do, revelling in the invigorating effect of taking his martial arts exams in a school hall full of five year olds. This entertaining spectacle took place in Chippenham, Wiltshire: "It's very nice around there - lots of white horses." Has he always been a bit of a nature boy on the quiet? "I was very much into those sort of things when I was a kid," he laughs, "says the ex-cockney barrow boy. That's the point of growing up in the suburbs, though, isn't it - that there should be a bit of both?
"I was basically brought up in London," he explains, "in the East End - then moved to the countryside, and had not wealthy but quite artistic parents. That whole thing is me, and all these different aspects are constantly battling against each other because I'm not quite sure where I come from." Which is a perfectly healthy state to be in. "It is," he agrees, "because it means I can keep drawing on other parts. But if you're the kind of person that I am, there are always going to be people who are going to dissect it and say you're a fake."
In the late autumn of last year, when the music papers began to carry carefully worded statements to the effect that Blur had changed direction and were now claiming kinship with Pavement and Sonic Youth - just the sort of American underground-rock groups which Albarn had been putting down in public for years - such scepticism reigned supreme. But then came "Beetlebum", the first single from the new album. OK, the nods to John Lennon and Kurt Cobain were somewhat on the obvious side, but there was a beguiling hint of mystery there as well. And given that the obvious starting point for a cynical repositioning campaign was for Blur to distance themselves from the Beatles legacy, that title was endearingly cheeky.
"To be honest with you," Albarn grins, "I've always felt that we were more in tune with the spirit of the Beatles - the late Beatles anyway..." another moment of mischief... "I think Oasis are the early Beatles and we are the late Beatles."
Listening to Blur's vibrant new album next to the dreary post-Oasis sub- Beatle-isms of 1997 Brit nominees such as Kula Shaker and Cast, it is impossible not to be impressed by the transformation. Their new music is not wilfully obscure - Albarn smiles, "We didn't want to make the little girls cry" - but it is a lot of other things not previously associated with the band, like honest and heartfelt and even touching. "England," Albarn proclaims mournfully on the B-side to "Beetle-bum", "you tattooed your past all over me."
People might question Blur's credentials for playing the sort of music Americans like to categorise as "alternative" - but this is to miss an important point. Albarn & Co's proud heritage as brazen pop tarts enables them to bring something to it that no one else could. Blur couldn't have made this record without the spur of being both very successful and extremely unhappy - a sensation with which the non-millionaires who play this kind of music "for real" are not familiar.
Albarn nods eagerly. "I always wanted to know what it was like to play in a huge stadium. That was part of the experience that I wanted to get: it didn't have a lot to do with music, it was more to do with performance... I feel very at home strutting about in front of an enormous number of people." Watching him on stage shortly after this conversation - the Cambridge Junction is a small-ish venue - he looks just as happy in front of a more modest assembly. The irony is that any fears that Blur's new direction was going to scare off their fans seem to have been well and truly confounded. "It's really going to gall people," Albarn says cheerfully, "if we can make an album like this and it can turn out to be a good move."
With that he is gone, off to the dressing-room for a morale-boosting chat with his other half, Elastica's Justine Frischmann, a famously stabilising influence. In his place sits the slight but engaging figure of guitarist Graham Coxon, now Richards to Albarn's Jagger, formerly Slash to his Axl. Coxon has "a bit of a headache". A while ago - when Coxon was still embarked upon what Albarn drily describes as "his drinking odyssey" - this malady would have had its roots in a bottle, but now there is an altogether happier cause. The unassuming guitar hero, whose tirelessly inventive and raucous fretwork is the secret of Blur's success, has been watching Toy Story on too small a television set.
The notoriously shy and retiring Coxon is unexpectedly talkative: his conversation ranges from the surprising side-effects of giving up drinking to excess - "I found out I didn't have as many friends as I thought" - to the traumatic impact of listening to the Beatles before you can read. " 'Nothing is real' in 'Strawberry Fields Forever' - I took that very seriously," he remembers. "I used to know the records by the Apples in the middle. The only problem was sometimes I'd get Mary Hopkin by mistake; then I'd be really frustrated - listening to 'Turn Turn Turn' when I wanted 'Revolution' and just thinking, 'Why am I getting this soft little song?' "
It's strange how childhood trauma can repeat itself in later life: this seemed to be just how Coxon, famed for his love of dissonance, was feeling on stage with Blur in 1995. So how did it all come good for him again? "I just got a letter from Damon that he'd written at four in the morning when he couldn't sleep." Coxon pauses. "Damon and I are very different, in that he is much more a dominant character - I don't think he likes experiencing anyone's vulnerability - so I was really happy to get this letter, because it meant that he was showing a more sensitive side to his nature. When we were touring we'd have some pretty horrible digs at each other - to the point where we felt that we actually hated each other. But when we started to make the new album we just found that there was a lot of fun to be had."
It's funny that the more superficially "up" sound of the other records wasn't really the sound of people enjoying themselves. "That's true." Coxon shakes his head ruefully. "We weren't really having a right royal knees up." This brings back the memory of something Albarn uttered gnomically just before he sloped off: "Nothing is really as it seems at any given point."
Albarn's advice is something his rivals would do well to bear in mind, because if he carries on the way he's going at the moment it will never again be necessary for Britain's pop fans to echo the immortal words of Harry Enfield's Hula Hoops advert: "Oi, Albarn, No!" And if the rest of 1997's big Britpop comebacks are as triumphant as this one, it's going to be a very good year.Reuse content