Blur was always impressive for its ability to cover a range of styles while maintaining its own voice. On 1994's Parklife, the pinnacle of the band's catalogue, Blur stuck an '80s dance number next to a Britpop song that was followed by a punk track that led into a carnival dirge -- all the while reminding us that it was indeed Blur we were listening to.
The band's guitarist, Graham Coxon, released three solo albums before breaking with the band during the recording of Think Tank in 2002 because of increasing tensions with lead singer Damon Albarn. As his fifth record (he released his fourth, The Kiss of Morning, in late 2002, during the Think Tank sessions), Happiness in Magazines is both Coxon's most accessible and his most obvious attempt to establish his own serious solo reputation. But if what Coxon wants is to depict himself as a competent frontman, he has failed. With barely two similar songs, Happiness is stylistically scattered, and where Blur frontman Damon Albarn has the charisma to give every song a signature sound, Coxon's weak vocal performances are so forgettable the album almost feels like a compilation.
But if Happiness in Magazines fails as a cohesive album, it makes up for it in some first-rate singles. The synths of "All Over Me" are the icing on this melodic, strings-heavy cake, and Coxon's weaving guitar work is equally beautiful. Its successor, "Freakin' Out," is a nice Britpop-punk track, and "No Good Time" is equally fun. "Bittersweet Bundle of Misery" is really just a Blur song, but who am I to complain? But the rest of the album is comprised of merely decent pop songs, like the late-'70s rock of opener "Spectacular," the Fall-and-early-'70s-era-Kinks rip-off "People of the Earth," and the Blur-lite "Hopeless Friend."
As Coxon's first album to receive real U.S. coverage, Happiness in Magazines has an advantage in that no one expects much more than a legitimate answer to Blur's Think Tank. Maybe, one would think, Coxon is going to release some songs he couldn't get past Albarn's veto. But with a career this deep, focus and purpose is the best thing you can hope for, and it's the last thing you could make a case for with this sampler. Blur could carry it off, but with Coxon alone, it just falls apart.
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