Damon's boys had it all: feted by the critics, adored by the fans for their tunes and pretty-boy looks. Enter Oasis, a crass rock 'n' roll band from Manchester, and the bubble bursts. John Mulvey charts the fall from favour, the self-pity, and the resurrection of a new, braver, Blur, while Andy Gill listens to the new single and Ryan Gilbey watches them live
For the past year or so, Damon Albarn has been the most unfashionable man in pop. Remember Damon? From Blur? A few people at least tried to forget him, especially when Noel Gallagher told them to. Of course you remember him. That ambitious, ever-so-slightly smug pin-up, the only pop star in the country brave enough to take on Oasis. The clever drama school boy living it up as an Essex geezer, whose band spent a couple of years as darlings of what more enthusiastic historians might call the British cultural renaissance. The unabashed limelight-hogger who ridiculed the kind of discomfort with fame that tormented so many of his contemporaries - until self-pity finally, but inexorably, caught up with him.

Oh yes, he was smart, even though he tried to hide it from time to time back then. He ransacked his parents' record collections to update The Kinks' wry vignettes of suburban life, and - with customary arrogance - placed himself as the heir apparent to Ray Davies, and Lennon & McCartney, and Pete Townshend, and Paul Weller, and all those other mod-ish chroniclers of the English tradition. He spearheaded a genre - the grimly-named Britpop - and, well, cleaned up. Blur's third album, 1994's Parklife, sold over a million copies in the UK. Critics loved its sense of irony, musical pastiche and thinly-disguised subversive spirit. Pop fans loved its energy, its singalong choruses and comedy videos. Quite a few of them evidently fancied Damon, too.

Blur had hit on something incredibly rare in music: an idea that was both creatively stimulating and commercially viable. Nice work, obviously. Damon, meanwhile, gave a faultless impression of a man having the time of his life. Feted by the elite, screamed at by the masses, he bought a greyhound and got drunk with Damien Hirst. For the first time in years, a band with guitars and a pride in their musical heritage - a proper band, some might say - were just about the biggest thing around. Then, of course, came Oasis.

Oasis, as only the most disciplined hermit can have failed to notice, were the genuine rock 'n' roll rough boys who showed up some of Blur's more ill-advised faux-Cockney posturing as the charade that most of their brighter fans had identified years before. But Albarn's confidence knew no bounds. "Country House" (the first single from their fourth album, The Great Escape) was released on the same day as Oasis's spectacularly plodding "Roll With It", and both bands found themselves irreversibly, hopelessly stereotyped. Forget anything as transient and trivial as the songs, the media decreed that this was a battle of absolutes: North versus South, working-class heroes versus middle-class poseurs, rock versus pop. An apocalyptic clash of cliches.

Somehow, Blur beat Oasis to Number 1. But the graceless triumphalism that followed only brought the backlash closer. When Oasis's shrewd, brazen manipulation of rock sentimentality, (What's the Story) Morning Glory, was unveiled, The Great Escape didn't stand a chance. Albarn was forced to ruefully admit that he was cursed by his own intelligence and, to a public transfixed by the Gallagher brothers' champion artlessness, his cold-eyed satires sounded like patronising attacks on the working class. Hence Blur may have won one brief skirmish, but they lost the ensuing war, horribly and humiliatingly. Morning Glory has sold approaching four million copies (and currently sits just outside the Top 20) and even Noel Gallagher's foul comment that he wished Damon and bassist Alex James would die of Aids was at the very least rapidly forgiven, and at the very worst actively supported.

Only in a world as fickle as that of pop music would such a still-successful band be so rapidly and ludicrously classed as failures. By the end of 1995, Damon Albarn was flaunting the kind of self-pity and navel-gazing he had once so vituperatively damned American rock stars for. He'd been depressed, he said, and a nation sneered. As Oasis became ever bigger and crasser, the ultimate lowest common denominator rock experience, Blur became laughing stocks. Damon, on an uncharacteristically hippyish quest for spiritual peace, frequently retreated to Iceland. The band played no live dates in Britain in 1996, regrouping in the summer to record a new album and deal with the rifts that had emerged in the band. The rest was silence. For a bit.

It is, then, a conspicuously more subdued Blur who return to the fray this week. They've realised that the lucky trick they pulled off so successfully in the past - that precarious balancing act between populism and pretension - just won't work any more in an Oasis-dominated, post-ironic music world. The time has come to choose between the two extremes.

Predictably, they've plumped for art-rock over chart-pop. Judged purely on artistic terms, the forthcoming album, titled, inscrutably enough, Blur, is a very good album: a distillation of their more eccentric impulses and an extended chance for guitarist Graham Coxon, always uncomfortable with the band's glossier, jollier moments, to make a spiky, feedback-drenched racket. But one nagging question remains: is Blur a brave record, an attempt to inject new ideas into the mainstream while staying creatively potent? Or is it the biggest wimp-out in years, a surly admission that Blur can't compete with Oasis on the terms they once set themselves, an acceptance of failure?

The real answer lies somewhere in-between. Damon Albarn is a wealthy man who probably never needs to work again, so his bank manager won't necessarily be demanding he sell massive amounts of records, even if his record label bosses might. In other words, he can afford to be self-indulgent. Also, his desire to be in the public eye has dissipated substantially: even before the farcical and destructive Blur vs Oasis spat, he hinted at a growing dissatisfaction with fame. "Pop people are defects," he wrote in an essay for NME in June 1995, revealing his angst for the first time. "Pop people are funny in the head and the more pop they get, the funnier their heads become."

Add to that the problems his girlfriend, Elastica's Justine Frischmann, has with the pressures of media attention, and the fact that Graham Coxon might have quit last spring had the band not moved towards his musical agenda, and Albarn's retreat is more understandable.

I suspect Damon Albarn desperately wants artistic credibility more than anything else these days. Perhaps he's come to terms with what he is: a decently-educated, vaguely middle-class man in his late 20s with some intelligent ideas about the nostalgia and pathos at the heart of British life and an occasional, theatrical desire to pretend to be something he isn't. Almost certainly, he's happy to be seen as that now, as the arty outsider rather than the quintessential bloke. After all the sniping, the knock-backs, the petty but very public squabbles, Damon Albarn still, remarkably, has that ferocious drive, he just worries far less about whether anyone else believes in him. Whether anyone buys his record of course, is another matter entirelyn

John Mulvey is deputy editor of 'NME'

the single

is comfortable, safe and slack but

the gig

shows that as a live act, the band are getting better all the time

Oddly disenchanted with Britpop after their overhyped head-to- head with the Gallagher brothers left them bruised and battered with UK album sales of a mere million, Blur's 1997 campaign supposedly reflects the lo-fi influence of American alternative acts such as Beck and Pavement.

Not that you'd guess it from this first salvo, "Beetlebum", on which the high-register harmonies and rolling riff - and very nearly the title - bear the unmistakeable imprint of the Beatles. True, there are no loveable mockney characters in Damon Albarn's lyric, and no handy bite-sized critique of suburban leisure lifestyles, but then there's not much of anything, really: reflecting their new wannabe-slacker attitude, the title (coincidentally, the name of the winning nag in Spike Jones's horse-race comedy classic) is just a nonsense word retained from the demo because they couldn't be bothered to change it, and the song simply strings together a few silly phrases of affection over a stiff chord sequence.

It's pleasant enough, but hardly the herald of a new direction. Of the accompanying two tracks, the chirpy, laconic "All Your Life" could be an out-take from The Great Escape, while the instrumental "A Spell (For Money)" perhaps best reflects their new lo-fi leanings, with its cluttery backbeat and asthmatic organ fumblings. AG

'Beetlebum' (Food CDFOOD 89). 'Blur' is released 10 Feb

'Country House". "There's No Other Way". "Charmless Man". The absence of these and many other songs which have caused more pain to the nation than arthritis was one reason why the first night of Blur's latest tour, at Newcastle's Mayfair, was a heartening low-key success. As you might have heard, Blur are starting over. They've had enough of having it easy, and of letting their fans have it easy. Their new album, called simply and starkly Blur, largely replaces jittery, rousing pop with pseudo avant-garde rock/ punk/ trip hop/ anything-else-they-can-get-their-mitts- on. With the album, they've done what the world least expects of them, when they should have done what they least expected of themselves. (Can a record be considered experimental if its experiments have already been conducted by other bands?) It's a disappointment compared with the escalating brilliance of their live show.

Whenever Blur have seemed fascinating, it has been because they have sustained a convincing dialogue between blinding optimism and crushing despair, a trick that has ensured the longevity of Pet Shop Boys and Madness. The choice of songs for Wednesday's show favoured the melancholy and the obscure, with a few jaunty greatest hits - a cursory "Parklife", a stark "Girls And Boys" - to remind you that life can be disco as well as drudgery.

There were new songs, inevitably but, with the exception of the brooding, clanging "Beetlebum", they inspired no more than a rush to the bar. Blur have progressed, not because of the new album, but because they play with the enthusiasm of a bunch of scamps who decided to form a group last week and the finesse of a band that has been honing its style for years.

Perhaps nothing about them has changed; perhaps they've simply been away for just long enough for you to miss them. But hearing songs such as "Popscene" and "The Universal" again after 12 months of British pop driven by desperate nostalgia rather than lust for music is like enduring a year in the desert and then stumbling upon an oasis - yes, that's oasis with a small "o". RG