By the late 1990s, with the release of Blur (1997), the band underwent another reinvention, influenced by the indie rock and lo-fi style of American bands such as Pavement, in the process finally gaining success in the U.S. with the single "Song 2". The last album featuring the band's original lineup, 13 (1999) found Blur experimenting with electronic music and gospel music. In May 2002, Coxon was asked to leave Blur during the early recording of their seventh album Think Tank (2003). The album contained electronic sounds, simpler guitar playing, and was largely marked by Albarn's growing interest in African music. Since the 2003 tour, Blur have done no studio work or touring as a band, and members have engaged in other projects. They maintain that while relations within the group are amicable, they have no concrete plans of working together in the immediate future.
Blur's initial success was shortlived. The band's third single, "Bang", performed disappointingly, reaching only number 24. Andy Ross and Food owner David Balfe were convinced Blur's best course of action was to continue drawing influence from the Madchester genre. Blur attempted to expand their musical sound, but the recording of the group's debut album was hindered by Albarn having to write his lyrics in the studio. The resulting album Leisure (1991) peaked at number seven on the British album charts, but the album "could not shake off the odour of anti-climax", according to journalist John Harris.
During the two-month American tour, the band became increasingly unhappy, often venting frustrations on each other, leading to several physical confrontations. The band members were homesick; Albarn said, "I just started to miss really simple things . . . I missed everything about England so I started writing songs which created an English atmosphere." Upon the group's return to the United Kingdom, Blur (Albarn in particular) were upset by the success rival group Suede had achieved while they were gone. After a poor performance at a 1992 gig that featured a well-received performance by Suede on the same bill, Blur were in danger of being dropped by Food. By that time, Blur had undergone an ideological and image shift intended to celebrate their British heritage in contrast to the popularity of American grunge bands like Nirvana. Although skeptical of Albarn's new manifesto for the band, Balfe gave assent for the band's choice of Andy Partridge of the band XTC to produce their follow-up to Leisure. The sessions with Partridge proved unsatisfactory, but a chance reunion with Stephen Street resulted in him returning to produce the group.
The band completed their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish in December 1992, but Food Records said the album required more potential hit singles and asked them to return to the studio for a second time. The band complied and Albarn wrote "For Tomorrow", which became the album's lead single. "For Tomorrow" was a minor success, reaching number 28 on the charts. Modern Life Is Rubbish was released in May 1993. The announcement of the album's released included a press photo featuring the phrase "British Image 1" spraypainted behind the band (who were dressed in a mixture of mod and skinhead attire) and a pitbull. At the time, such imagery was viewed as nationalistic and racially insensitive by the British music press; to quiet concerns, Blur subsequently released the "British Image 2" photo, which was "a camp restaging of a pre-war aristocratic tea party". Modern Life Is Rubbish peaked at number 15 on the British charts, yet it did not make much of an impression in the U.S.
The success of Parklife (1994) revived Blur's commercial fortunes. The album's first single, the disco-influenced "Girls & Boys", found favour on BBC Radio 1 and peaked at number five on the singles chart. Parklife entered the British charts at number one and stayed on the album charts for 90 weeks. Enthusiastically greeted by the music press—the NME called it "a Great Pop Record . . . bigger, bolder, narkier and funnier [than Modern Life is Rubbish]"—Parklife is regarded as one of Britpop's defining records. The album generated further hit singles, including the ballad "To the End" and the mod anthem "Parklife". Blur won four awards at the 1995 BRIT Awards, including Best Band and Best Album for Parklife Coxon later pointed to Parklife as the moment when "[Blur] went from being regarded as an alternative, left field arty band to this amazing new pop sensation".
Blur began working on their fourth album The Great Escape at the start of 1995. Building upon the band's previous two albums, Albarn's lyrics for the album consisted of several third-person narratives. James reflected, "It was all more elaborate, more orchestral, more theatrical, and the lyrics were even more twisted . . . It was all dysfunctional, misfit characters fucking up. The release of the album's lead single "Country House" became part of a rivalry with Manchester band Oasis termed "The Battle of Britpop". Partly due to increasing antagonisms between the groups, Blur and Oasis ultimately decided to release their new singles on the same day, an event the NME called "The British Heavyweight Championship". The debate over which band would top the British singles chart became a media phenomenon, and Albarn appeared on the News at Ten. At the end of the week, "Country House" ultimately outsold Oasis' "Roll With It" by 274,000 copies to 216,000, becoming Blur's first number one single.
The Great Escape was released in September 1995 to rapturous reviews, and entered the UK charts at number one. The NME hailed it as "spectacularly accomplished, sumptuous, heart-stopping and inspirational". However, opinion quickly changed and Blur found themselves largely out of favour with the media once again. Following the worldwide success of Oasis' (What's the Story) Morning Glory? (which went quadruple platinum in America), the media quipped that "[Blur} wound up winning the battle, but losing the war. Blur became perceived as an "inauthentic middle class pop band" in comparison to the "working class heroes" Oasis, which Albarn said made him feel "stupid and confused". Bassist Alex James later summarised, ""After being the People's Hero, Damon was the People's Prick for a short period . . . basically, he was a loser – very publicly."
Although he had previously dismissed it, Albarn grew to appreciate Coxon's tastes in lo-fi and underground music, and recognised the need to significantly change Blur's musical direction once again. "I can sit at my piano and write brilliant observational pop songs all day long but you've got to move on", he said. He subsequently approached Street, and argued for a more stripped-down sound on the band's next record. Coxon, recognising his own personal need to—as Rowntree put it—"work this band", wrote a letter to Albarn, describing his desire for their music "to scare people again". After initial sessions in London, the band left to record the rest of the album in Iceland, away from the Britpop scene.
The result was Blur, the band's fifth studio album, released in February 1997. Although the music press predicted that the lo-fi sonic experimentation would alienate Blur's teenage girl fan-base, they generally applauded the effort. Pointing out lyrics such as "Look inside America/ She's alright", and noting Albarn's "obligatory nod to Beck, [and promotion of] the new Pavement album as if paid to do so", reviewers felt the band had come to accept American values during this time—an about-face of their attitude during the Britpop years. Despite cries of "commercial suicide", the album and its first single, "Beetlebum", debuted at number one in the UK. Although the album could not match the sales of their previous albums in the UK, Blur became the band's most successful internationally. In the US, the record received strong reviews as the album and the "Song 2" single became a hit. Blur reached number 61 on the Billboard 200 and was certified gold, while "Song 2" peaked at number six on the Modern Rock chart. After "Song 2" was licensed for use in various media—such as soundtracks, advertisements and television shows—it became the most-recognisable Blur song in the US. After the success of Blur, the band embarked on a nine-month world tour.
In February 1998, a few months after completing the tour, Blur released Bustin' + Dronin' for the Japanese market. The album is a collection of Blur songs remixed by artists such as Thurston Moore, William Orbit and Moby. Among the tracks, the band were most impressed by Orbit's effort and enlisted him to replace Street as producer for their next album, citing a need to approach the recording process from a fresh perspective. Recording sessions for the upcoming album began in June 1998, and in August of that year, Coxon released his debut solo album, The Sky is Too High on his own label, Transcopic Records.
Released in March 1999, Blur's sixth studio album 13 saw them drift still farther away from their Britpop-era attitude and sound. Orbit's production style allowed for more jamming, and incorporated a "variety of emotions, atmospheres, words and sounds" into the mix. 13 was creatively dominated by Coxon, who "was simply allowed to do whatever he chose, unedited", by Orbit. Albarn's lyrics—more heart-felt, personal and intimate than on previous occasion—were reflective of his break-up with Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann, his partner of eight years. The album received generally favourable reviews from the press. While Q called it "a dense, fascinating, idiosyncratic and accomplished art rock album", the NME felt it was inconsistent and "(at least) a quarter-of-an-hour too long". 13 debuted at the top of the UK charts, staying at that position for two weeks. The album's lead single, the gospel-based "Tender", opened at the second spot on the charts. After "Coffee & TV", the album's second single, managed to only reach number 11 in the UK, manager Chris Morrison demanded a chart re-run because of a supposed sales miscalculation.
Recording for Blur's next album got under way in Marrakesh, Morocco in mid-2002. Tensions surfaced, however, when Coxon began to appear emotionally and creatively distant to his band mates, reportedly failing to attend recording sessions. Two of the main causes for this has been cited as the choice of dance DJ Fatboy Slim as the album's producer and also Coxon's alleged alcohol problems. After several weeks of uncertainty, Coxon confirmed that he had been asked to leave the band for reasons connected with his "attitude. His last contribution to the band was a guitar line on the final track of Think Tank, "Battery in Your Leg" which Albarn said was the only song he ever wrote about the band.
Before the album was released, Blur released a new single, "Don't Bomb When You're The Bomb" as a very limited white label release. A largely electronic song, sporting a chorus consisting of "Don't bomb when you're the bomb-ba-bomb-bomb-bomb" the single and the band's startling reinvention was a shock to Blur fans, who were expecting a return to the catchy pop tunes of the band's early career. Albarn, however, attempted to assuage fans' fears by explaining the impetus behind the song and providing reassurances that the band's new album would be a return to their roots.
Think Tank, released in May 2003, was filled with atmospheric, brooding electronic sounds, featuring simpler guitar lines played by Albarn, and largely relying on other instruments to replace Coxon. Coxon's absence also meant that Think Tank was almost entirely written by Albarn. Its sound was seen as a testament to Albarn's increasing interest in African music, Middle Eastern music and electronic music, and to his control over the group's creative direction. For the following tour the band hired Simon Tong, former guitarist and keyboardist of The Verve, who also played with Albarn in his Gorillaz project. While Think Tank was received well by critics and fans, a minority of critics didn't warm to it. However, Think Tank was yet another UK number one and managed Blur's highest US position of number 56. The album was also nominated for best album at the 2004 BRIT Awards. The band supported the album with a tour and three singles: "Out of Time", "Crazy Beat" and "Good Song".
In early 2004, the band announced, through XFM news, that they would be recording an EP, and there were also rumours that Coxon would return to Blur, which proved untrue. But in the news, the band explained that the workload on Albarn would be significant, as he was working on the second Gorillaz album, among other projects. In mid-2005, Blur recorded a couple of songs, without Coxon, conceived mainly acoustically by Albarn. In an interview with the NME, Albarn said that if Coxon wasn't to return to the band, he was not comfortable with reforming Blur. "Why don't I get another guitarist? Because there's none better than Coxon," was Albarn's reply.
After Coxon significantly thawed about rejoining the band, James announcedin April and August 2007 that the band will reunite and will likely be recording a new album in October . However, in early October 2007, the official band site revealed that although band members all met for "an enjoyable lunch", they had no intentions of Blur work in the near future and that the media drew out the reunion talks far too much. An official statement about the future of the band has yet to be released.
James maintains that "It would be a disaster thinking there would never be another Blur record. And anyone who has ever been in a band thinks they can get back together and make the best album ever. Albarn is more pessimistic about the possibility of a band reunion: "You'd be very unwise to put money on it. I'm starting my own betting service and I'll just keep feeding things to the press saying 'Maybe, maybe'. It's like the polar ice-caps staying frozen: unlikely. Coxon said that beside the lunch the band never discussed potential recording: "We met for a catch-up and it was great, but there was no real talk of recording. In an article published in NME on 1 February 2008, Albarn ruled out a Blur reunion in the near future due to his commitments to his solo projects.