Off Key with Eric D.: Graham Coxon

Eric D'Orazio

Here’s a recipe for success: take one of the finest bands of the Britpop era, sift out a member and give him a solo career. After about four relatively lo-fi albums, allow him the pop sensibility that made the previous band so famous, along with the producer who crafted their fame to unprecedented success. Set this individual aside for about a year, add a pinch of sugar for good measure, and voila, you get Graham Coxon, the artist formerly known as Blur’s guitarist.

Hot on the heels of 2002’s critically acclaimed “The Kiss Of Morning,” Coxon offers up his highly anticipated fifth album, “Happiness in Magazines.” Under the helm of legendary Blur producer Stephen Street, the new record realizes a more grandiose sound than its four predecessors combined.

Driven by such amenities as a strings section, backup vocalists and even the occasional French horn, this latest effort makes his quadrilogy of lo-fi ventures look like nothing more than a leisurely stroll down Primrose Hill. Yet, similar to those solo ventures, Coxon’s lyrics still focus upon his own life and the people surround him. But don’t let that be your only criteria for judging the album. The real key lies in the new musical direction that he is taking.

With blaring guitars and classic rock reminiscences, the opening track of “Happiness in Magazines” is “Spectacular.” Dealing with the shock, awe and downright lust that occur upon meeting the most gorgeous person imaginable, the song meanders through seeing “no one cuter” and being “left in a stupor,” only to culminate with its shouting chorus, “you are something quite spectacular.”

According to Coxon, the inspiration for the song came from “seeing a picture of [actress] Shannyn Sossamon on the computer, and just thinking, ‘Good God, what a beautiful woman!'” Utter hotness aside, “Spectacular” is glorified by the guitarist’s world-renowned riffs, from buzzing bridges to sharp solos, not to mention a welcome bit of cowbell.

Furthering the claim that Coxon is “no more Mr. lo-fi” is the album’s sixth song and first single, “Freakin’ Out.” Kick-starting itself with a blast of garage-rock guitar placed upon an almost unchanging riff, the song represents the end of the wallowing frustrations he exuded on previous solo records, and vicariously, his inevitable escape from Blur.

Opening by depicting a state of sheer boredom, he asks, “What do you do when nothing’s wrong?” a question that only leads him to believe he is “really freakin’ out.” By the end of the second verse, he throws his problems towards his former bandmates, declaring, “Why don’t you all just disappear, the price of your friendship’s way too dear.” With such heated content put to such enthusiastic musicianship, Coxon’s “Freakin’ Out” is freakin’ amazing.

In contrast to the blur of fast-paced rock-outs on “Happiness in Magazines,” the new record also presents a more soothing side through a handful of songs scattered about its 12-piece tracklisting. And nowhere does that side shine more brilliantly than on “All Over Me.” Coming across as a melancholic ballad about the special times one had with a love that has since gone, the track focuses on how love became so great that nothing else mattered, but that the lovers eventually “said goodnight and blew away.” Going along with the song’s relatively somber mood are the aforementioned strings section, a great deal of mellow guitar work and a vocal hook so marvelous it is simply breathtaking. Truth be told, “All Over Me” is the finest song on “Happiness in Magazines,” made better only by the fact that it’s the album’s next single.

When put into perspective, it becomes apparent that where Blur failed with last year’s “Think Tank,” Graham Coxon succeeds by means of his “Happiness.” Instead of releasing uninspired, techy songs that peak for a week on the charts and fall to oblivion, Coxon’s material remains highly requested, greatly enthusiastic and most importantly, true to himself. Like his former band circa 1997, he’s putting the rock back in the Union Jack, and in turn, he’s become everyone’s favorite underdog for doing so.

Some consider him the next Jimi Hendrix, others, a mere 30-something version of Harry Potter with a guitar. But whatever he may be, Graham Coxon was born to be a rocking solo artist. Quite simply, there’s no other way. All that you can do is watch him play.