One of the keys to Blur’s appeal is the fidgety interplay between its two central figures, Graham Coxon’s sharp-elbowed guitar attack and lo-fi approach caught in a love/hate clinch with Damon Albarn’s burgeoning avant-garde sensibilities. Coxon might have always been a guitarist at heart, but that hasn’t stopped him from indulging in a few experiments of his own over seven solo records. Sure, he hasn’t spent the last ten years recording Malian folk-pop or soundtracking Chinese operas, but his solo career has seen his six-stringer swing from fuzzed-out garage rock (Happiness in Magazines) to miserabilist blues (Crow Sit on Blood Tree) to bucolic English folk (The Spinning Top) and, now, back again.
Because after the gentle melancholy of The Spinning Top, Coxon’s eighth solo album A+E feels like a return to his home turf. He might have made for an engaging tourist on his bluegrass outings and Nick Drake pilgrimages, but power chords and distortion pedals have always been Coxon’s first language. With every scuzzy riff and frantic arpeggio, A+E feels like the most stripped-back reflection of the elements that make Coxon such a fascinating proposition. On opener ‘Advice’, he savages his guitar like he’s making up for lost time, creating a juddering, hysterical ball of energy worthy of the sturdiest straitjacket.
Lyrically and tonally, the album gets down to the nitty-gritty of Coxon’s eternal (possibly self-imposed) outsider status. ‘Meet and Drink and Pollinate’, with its regimented handclaps and robotic vocals, finds him trying to decipher the rituals of pissed-up human interaction like they’re alien hieroglyphics. The steamroller guitar squall of ‘Running For Your Life’ provides a thrilling backing to the naked aggression of the laddish antagonists chasing Coxon out of town. “The last thing you’ll be seeing is a HATE tattoo/Get back down the M1 ‘cos we don’t like you”, they bark at his fleeing back.
But what really separates A+E from Coxon’s other rock albums (Happiness in Magazines and Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, for example) is the production. The technicolor presentation of old hits like ‘Freakin Out’ has been replaced by a primitive scratchiness that plays much better to his strengths as a musician and a songwriter. Coxon and producer Ben Hillier (an interesting choice given that he produced Think Tank, the album that saw Coxon drift away from Blur during recording) have taken a rusty scourer to A+E’s sound. Plenty of artists employ lo-fi recording as a last-ditch grab for new ideas, but with this snarling set it’s the natural outsider’s choice. Some tracks, particularly the early-grunge thump of ‘The Truth’ and crackling Krautrock experiment ‘City Hall’, sound less like they’re being blasted in your face than thumping through the thin walls of the flat next door. The kind of noise you’d complain about if it didn’t sound so bloody good.
Coxon has always sounded best when he’s writing music as a form of electro-shock therapy; a bundle of neuroses buried under layers of cathartic guitar and endearingly crap vocals. With his latest album, he may have found his most effective delivery method yet. “What’s wrong with me?” Coxon repeats over and over on first single ‘What’ll It Take’. A+E might not bring us any closer to the answer, but if the results are this exciting for the rest of us, it’s important that he keeps asking the question.