In the simplest terms, The Great Escape is the flip side of Parklife. Where Blur's breakthrough album was a celebration of the working class, drawing on British pop from the '60s and reaching through the '80s, The Great Escape concentrates on the suburbs, featuring a cast of characters all trying to cope with the numbing pressures of modern life. Consequently, it's darker than Parklife, even if the melancholia is hidden underneath the crisp production and catchy melodies. Even the bright, infectious numbers on The Great Escape have gloomy subtexts, whether it's the disillusioned millionaire of "Country House" and the sycophant of "Charmless Man" or the bleak loneliness of "Globe Alone" and "Entertain Me." Naturally, the slower numbers are even more despairing, with the acoustic "Best Days," the lush, sweeping strings of "The Universal," and the stark, moving electronic ballad "Yuko & Hiro" ranking as the most affecting work Blur have ever recorded. However, none of this makes The Great Escape a burden or a difficult album. The music bristles with invention throughout, as Blur delve deeper into experimentation with synthesizers, horns, and strings; guitarist Graham Coxon twists out unusual chords and lead lines, and Damon Albarn spits out unexpected lyrical couplets filled with wit and venomous intelligence in each song. But Blur's most remarkable accomplishment is that they can reference the past -- the Scott Walker homage of "The Universal," the Terry Hall/Fun Boy Three cop on "Top Man," the skittish, XTC-flavored pop of "It Could Be You," and Albarn's devotion to Ray Davies -- while still moving forward, creating a vibrant, invigorating record.
[EMI's deluxe 2012 double-disc expansion of The Great Escape contains the 1995 album on the first disc and a host of B-sides and rarities on the second. Among Blur's British Trilogy, The Great Escape often gets slighted but this era generated the band's greatest B-sides, likely due to the confluence of the band being in its commercial prime and the industry's dictate to release multi-part CD singles for every single pulled from the record. And so we have "One Born Every Minute," "The Ultranol," and "No Monsters in Me," outtakes from The Great Escape that could have fit easily within the record itself ("Ultranol" itself is the sunny flip of "The Universal"). There are a couple of alternates -- a remix of "Entertain Me," a French version of "To the End" -- along with a suite of songs culled from their triumphant 1995 gig at Mile End. And then there are five flips that illustrate how not all was well beneath the glided surface: "The Man Who Left Himself," "Tame," "Ludwig," "The Horrors," "A Song," and "St. Louis" are woozy, unnerving returns to Barrett-styled psychedelia and tentative stabs at lo-fi that point the way to the sounds of 1997's Blur.]