Blur - Tender (live at Glastonbury 2009)

Whenever I used to be tempted to go back to a familiar yet dismal relationship of the past year, I listened Blur’s 13 and told to tell myself that it was okay to have this reluctance towards being alone but I shouldn’t forget the reasons I had for leaving. It hurt because I cared. It’s supposed to hurt.

For a while I hated being in this city. Every day I had to pass the spot in the middle of the sidewalk where he once stopped and kissed me after talking lamely about the skyline, and the picnic spot, see the restaurant we ate at that one otherwise hot, calm day when they were doing construction and he finished my plate over the sound of a jackhammer, the other place where we’d had our first date. We walked all around the city together; we were both walkers. He always went at a fast pace like he was late for an urgent appointment somewhere and I went fast too, it was our inside joke.

Look, we were everywhere, and I felt exhausted by it. I was tired of the sluggishness and the crowds. The city was a lot like keeping him around. Bruise as a souvenir. I wanted to think all the trouble was worth it in the end, for something.

The thing about tender is that it cuts two ways. There’s tenderness, yes; like the way we expect to be touched by a lover, gently, and with great focus and affection. But what of the other side of tender, as in the tender flesh of a bruise or the specific kind of rawness that comes with loving someone? The spot that cannot actually bear to be touched is tender, too. I don’t mean to speak lightly of abuse, I mean the discomfort factor that arises when you are looking at someone else fully and they are looking back at you, and you’re just scared for your insides, of rejection, squirmy discomfort at the potential to be misunderstood, to be seen as silly, to be eventually abandoned.

One of my previous lovers said I was too detached. Another got away with all sorts of lying and cheating because I wouldn’t dig in about it, I didn’t want to be that girl who was clingy, insistent. I found him out and left him. So much for fear of hysteria. Another left because he thought I left first.

In the aftermath I always felt gullible and foolish, like a little girl clumsily playing a game. I wanted to take a long, hard look at myself. Then I realized that maybe I’ve always been gullible and foolish, but if I’m going to be stupid in that I am willing to trust someone, I’ll take being stupid. But I need to communicate better. I won’t put up with a lie. I did learn more about the things I liked and wanted, and the things I didn’t. I faced some unfortunate flaws that I would have preferred to go on not thinking about if they hadn’t so affected someone that was close to me. It did hurt; it was like slowly constructing a huge monument with my bare hands. As it turns out, the song “Tender” is this sort of monument.

13 is famously about Damon Albarn’s breakup with Justine Frischmann of Elastica. It’s grieving in a dazed, woozy hungover kind of way and “Tender” is the opening salvo. Seven minutes of some dude trying to talk himself out of a slump. It’s got a sledgehammer beat, especially at the beginning, like swinging something that is actually too heavy to swing. How fitting. Albarn has since perfected the art of the tired, world-weary vocal but here it comes on like something new to him because it is. On commonly known Blur tracks like “Girls & Boys” and “Charmless Man” his default position was archly coy, but make no mistake, he was capable of sincerity. 13 is more like the birth of the Albarn personal narrative, no more deflections through characters. Most significant of all though is Graham Coxon’s refrain on the track: “Oh my baby… oh why… oh my”. Graham doesn’t often sing solo on Blur tracks but he does on “Tender” because Damon needs the propping up. He wants to convince himself that he will be okay very very badly and he can’t do it alone. Is it so wrong to think that the need for things to be okay eventually helps to make them so? That you can keep telling yourself something until enough time has passed and it’s true? It’s no wonder that “Tender” has mutated into something like a ring-around-the-campfire sing-along at Blur live gigs. There’s no better catharsis than a stadium or whatever full of people telling “you come on come on come on, get through it / love’s the greatest thing that we have / I’m waiting for that feeling / waiting for that feeling”. It’s a slap on the back in miserable motherfucker mutual recognition. Yeah buddy, me too. That one terrible breakup, once. 

Not to make too fine of a point of it because his life, as well as my own, will resist any simple narratives being stamped on it, but not long after 13 came out, Albarn met his current partner and the mother of his child, Suzi Winstanley. He didn’t know that when writing “Tender”, sure. We could ask Damon Albarn how many times he first sang this song before he really, really started to believe it. He might say “the first” and be lying, or not, or maybe “the eighty-seventh”, god knows. To me, ‘moving on’ seems to be partly you being carried forward into the swell of your life against your will, and partly you dragging yourself forward single step by single step like some lurching zombie. Don’t ask me which part of moving on is more significant. Does it matter? Either way we know what it is to say I don’t feel well yet, but maybe this song will make me feel well by the end. It’s true. Something that once hurt can become a love letter in the end. What passed passed and I looked up from the page and maybe Damon looked up from the record, we all looked up feeling hopeful and also dazed like someone had just struck us on the forehead. “Tender” is like the bridge, a warm body we can meet across.

Brittany Alderfer

Britt previously appeared on OWOB writing about The Style Council.