Album review: Graham Coxon - A&E

Graham Coxon: Able to please himself and charm others. Picture: Getty
Graham Coxon: Able to please himself and charm others. Picture: Getty
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Blur guitarist Graham Coxon’s eighth solo album dredges up past excesses and marries them to an abuse of technology – but all in a good cause

LONG before Blur buried their hatchets and were officially recognised as National Treasures, Graham Coxon had an uncanny knack for inspiring affection. At the height of the Britpop Wars, Noel Gallagher was even heard to concede that the errant guitarist was “alright”.

Coxon has often acted like the misunderstood teenager of the band, the one who doesn’t live in a house, a very big house, in the country, who would rather chug cider in the park than sip champagne at the party. Just recently, he admitted that “my default setting is nine years old”. People want to look after him, or at least, look out for him. Graham Coxon is 43 years old and has been a father these last 12 years.

While his bandmates have forged alternative careers in politics, cheese-making and Chinese opera, Coxon is the one who has stayed closest to home, cleaving to the old DIY punk ways, producing a succession of seemingly ramshackle solo bedroom recordings in diametric opposition to Damon Albarn’s excursions into high art and world music.

But beyond the perverse Peter Pan persona, there lies an industrious talent, a great tunesmith and gifted musician. Since Blur reconvened in 2009, there has been constant will-they-won’t-they speculation about a new album.

Coxon isn’t hanging about: this week, he delivers his eighth album in an eclectic and seemingly spontaneous solo career. His previous album, The Spinning Top, was a thoughtf aul psych-folk affair. A+E kicks against that with a chaotic, at times even demented, sound born out of improvised demos, ditching any semblance of romanticism in favour of a sort of doomed hedonism and the fractious fall-out it can lead to. Soundwise, Coxon says he was going for “that cheap headachey thing”. The album cover is a phone snap of a skint knee. Although Coxon has been sober for ten years, he appears to be harking back to his days as a one-man Camden wrecking crew.

In fact, his capacity for attracting trouble started in his teens. Opening track Advice was apparently inspired by being beaten up for playing a Smiths album at a party in the 80s. “I’m pretty much back where I started and it’s quite concerning me,” frets Coxon over a snotty, scrappy punky backing, which bores in its hooklines by repetition.

However, A+E is not, in the main, just another of Coxon’s frenetic guitar albums. This time, he’s also gone for “the abuse of technology”. The keyboards kick in on the compelling City Hall, which is dominated by an insistent bassline but layers on spindly guitar, ominous brass incursions and vocals which sound like they were recorded in a shed.

Current single What’ll It Take teams chugging guitar, analogue synth and Coxon’s slightly desperate and persistent line of inquiry: “what’ll it take to make you people dance?” and “what’s wrong with me?” – sulky accusation and self-recrimination in one electronic mantra; gotta love it.

Meet + Drink + Pollinate is a pithy summary of the social ritual played out every weekend in bars and clubs across the country. Hollow handclaps and robotic vocals enforce the mechanical nature of the game, before Coxon reaches the disenchanted conclusion that there is “nothing else to do”. His new favourite instrument, saxophone, adds some jazz-punk flavour in the closing stages.

This middle stretch of the album is redolent of Blur’s Eurosynth tendencies on tracks such as Parklife’s Trouble In The Message Centre, but some of the material is drawn out almost masochistically. The Truth is an even darker, industrial trawl, with Coxon sounding distant and disaffected in the mix. The marginally catchier Seven Naked Valleys is still weighted down with doggedly chugging guitar and more snake-hipped, sinister sax.

But this woozy paranoia is rudely punctured by Running for Your Life, a humorous tilt at Coxon’s own passive-aggressive ability to court trouble, whose jabbering chorus and scream-if-you-want-to-go-faster backing equal the primal derangement of Blur at full pelt on the likes of Song 2.

Following this street punch-up of a track, the lengthy Knife in the Cast thrums with the quiet menace of Can or early Pink Floyd, which is only slightly tempered by Coxon’s plaintive vocals. The relatively lighter, grungey country of Ooh, Yeh Yeh recounts a meeting with an old friend who, unlike Coxon, hasn’t put his drinking days behind him – maybe it’s the younger version of himself. Either way, it’s a fitting end to an album which deals with growing older (or not) and nostalgia for your feral days with an idiosyncratic eloquence.

Damon Albarn may be the one pushing out the musical boat these days, but Graham Coxon holds fast to the ability to please himself and charm others at the same time.

Rating: ****