In the title sequence to the oft-overlooked 1970s British TV show The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, the titular character runs down a typically bleak English beach, casting aside his clothes as he does, and then walks into the sea. The show follows Reginald (Leonard Rossiter), an everyman stuck in a soul-destroying desk job, as he fakes his own death and reemerges from the sea to reinvent himself as a new man.
It’s a quintessentially middle-class escape fantasy, but Blur went one better with their fourth album, The Great Escape, which was released 20 years ago today. The iconic cover art depicts another disappearance into the sea, but this one appears to be from the side of some sort of fancy speedboat. Even the rich are jumping ship, it seems — and so it proves on the record contained within the sleeve, which serves as a strange and largely unique exploration of middle- and upper-class ennui, one that continues to resound two decades later.
As with Blur’s previous albums, the songs are written mostly as narratives, all inhabited by a sideshow of the grotesquerie of late capitalism. From the neurasthenic protagonist of “Country House” through the hypocritical conservative hedonists of “Charmless Man” and “Mr. Robinson’s Quango” to the bored Reggie Perrin figure of “Ernold Same,” the characters are awful in a larger-than-life kind of way — a leering, rapacious, vicious upper class which recalls that depicted in UNKLE’s memorably terrifying “Money and Run” video.
You might complain that they’re caricatures — and that’s a fact Albarn acknowledges on the album’s very first track, entitled, appropriately enough, “Stereotypes”: “Yes, they’re stereotypes/ There must be more to life.” The characters aren’t at all easy to sympathize with, but that, I’d argue, is the point — you’re not meant to like them. They’re like the musical version of an editorial cartoon, their foibles exaggerated and enhanced to bring them into sharper relief.
Stereotyping wasn’t a new idea for Albarn by this point in his career. His lyrics had previously been criticized for sneering at the working class — “Girls and Boys” being a prime example — but his depictions of those whose lives are spent under the heel of Britain’s moneyed elite are more compassionate here: there’s the tired taxi driver of “Best Days,” ferrying cashed-up revelers from Soho to the suburbs as the sun rises, and the star-crossed lovers of “Yuko and Hiro.” If there is hope, it appears, it lies in the proles.
But honestly, hope is in short supply on The Great Escape. All these characters yearn for some means of escape, but none of them really achieve it. And if the present is dark, the future is darker still. The album’s conceptual centerpiece, “He Thought of Cars,” finds its protagonist musing on a dystopian future and dreaming of getting away, but his ideas are never more than idle daydreams: “He thought of cars/ And where, where to drive them/ And who to drive them with/ But there, there was no one.” The album’s second single, “The Universal,” has an even bleaker vision of the future, one that predicted surveillance culture with startling accuracy: “No one here is alone/ Satellites in every home/ Yes, the Universal’s here/ Here for everyone.”
And, of course, there’s more than a touch of self-referentialism here, because who’s more privileged than a well-heeled pop star? This connection is made explicit with “Dan Abnormal” (an anagram of “Damon Albarn”), but all these characters can be interpreted as representing, to varying extents, aspects of their creator. If you read the album this way, it’s a strikingly bleak piece of work — if Albarn is shining lights into the dark corners of his personality with these songs, then he certainly doesn’t seem to like what he sees.
Either way, The Great Escape is a strange, singular piece of work. It’s rare for musicians to write deliberately from the perspective of a privileged class, and to examine its struggles in and of themselves, rather than contrasting them with the struggles of the working class and/or the oppressed minority. It can make for strange listening, and at times the temptation is to scoff at the stories of people who apparently have it all but still want more.
But these fractured, damaged figures, with their expensive suits and drug habits and abiding sense of low-level despair — their stories are important too. They tell us that — not unlike patriarchy — capitalism damages everyone, even those it’s supposed to benefit. If all that being atop the capitalist pyramid, with all the money and privilege that brings, breeds is an urge to walk into the sea, perhaps it’s time to reexamine the whole sorry business.