Today, Blur is considered one of the greatest British bands of all time. In 1991, however, its future was unclear. When the band entered the alternative rock scene with Leisure, an album that fit in with the dance-oriented “baggy” music that was popular in England at the time, it was met with mixed reviews. Some critics dismissed Blur as a forgettable group of bandwagon-hoppers; Others were prepared to watch them become the next national sensation. Although Blur wouldn’t prove its competence to many detractors until its sophomore album Modern Life Is Rubbish, this debut hints at the immense promise the band held.
As the album’s name would suggest, much of Leisure would make an ideal soundtrack for a carefree summer day. Many of the songs feature jaunty guitar riffs and percussion that lends itself to toe-tapping and head-bobbing. One such song is “There’s No Other Way,” the album’s most successful single. The simple, but thought-provoking lyrics, such as “You’re making me run when I don’t want to think,” are notable for being far more open to interpretation than the character sketches that frontman Damon Albarn would later write. What does “There’s no other way” truly mean in the song? There’s no clear answer—but the line is fun to ponder, and even more fun to sing.
Another standout on the album is “Bad Day,” which introduces listeners to the melodica, an instrument that Albarn would later reuse in a bevy of tracks for Blur, Gorillaz, and The Good, the Bad, & the Queen. The song matches cynical lyrics with a peppy beat, making it suitable for both introspection and an energy boost, depending on the listener’s mood. “Bang,” too, is a skillfully executed bop with stream-of-consciousness lyrics and guitars that take the reader on an “underground train” ride of confusion and longing. The track truly displays Albarn’s ability to tell stories with both his dynamic vocals and his clever verses, which would someday launch him to success.
Even though Leisure is often placed in the upbeat baggy genre, some of its songs are far more melancholic than they are cheery, both musically and lyrically. The most poignant of these is “Sing,” an epic that drags the listener into a world where no roads lead home and skies are grey for six minutes. Over dramatic piano chords and guitars that mimic the idle clamor that can sometimes fill one’s head, Albarn elaborates on his numb state of mind. When he moans, “What’s the worth… in all of this… if the child in your head… if the child is dead,” he sounds irreparably broken. When he pleads, “Sing to me” in the chorus, he seems as if he’s finally grasped the thread of hope… but then the next verse comes around, and he loses his grip on it once again.
Another memorably somber song is “Birthday,” which features an opening instrumental that’s anything but celebratory, haunting echoes and harmonies, surprisingly downcast lyrics like “I don’t like this day/It makes me feel too small,” and an ending that transforms the song from a poetic ditty into a work of art. These two tracks prove that Blur never intended to become a radio-friendly caricature; it was always willing to experiment with a variety of sounds and subject matter.
Eventually, Blur would abandon baggy, revisiting it only occasionally in songs like Modern Life Is Rubbish‘s “Oily Water.” Later on, the band’s songs would define the Britpop genre, dabble with electronic sounds, and grow exceedingly more personal and political. Although Blur is now mainly famous for its career after Leisure, music lovers who find the band intriguing should certainly not ignore the somewhat incongruous debut. To do so would be to miss out on a special glimpse at the group’s determination and talent, which have been evident since day one.