Mar 24, 1999 at 12:00 am

Blur’s members are the decathletes of modern pop music: Master dabblers, they have never been the best or most representative band of any rock subgenre they have dipped in. Even "Britpop," a moniker virtually invented by Blur to suit its own eclecticism, was eventually co-opted by Oasis and a host of inferior bands. Blur dazzles with the sheer range and quality of its talents, and the band’s best albums (Parklife, Blur) combine the kick of anthemic one-offs such as "Parklife" or "Song 2" with moments of unexpected soulfulness, urgency and plain-old weirdness.

And this latter trait is about all that 13 has in common with its predecessors. Incontrovertibly Blur’s best work, 13 is unsparingly and eloquently personal, and despite exceptionally(!) broad stylistic meandering, it is totally coherent. Finessed with the band’s customary sense for detail, loose-limbed songs embrace pop, punk and Beatles-and-Bowie-esque rock (familiar), as well as gospel, blues, country and psychedelic rock influences, jazzy drums, dance beats and all manner of space-age technology. Soulful, urgent, weird, yes; just all at once now.

The sweeping first track, "Tender," sums up the band’s new direction. Frontman Damon Albarn pleas for help from some higher power as he suffers a dark night of the soul, and his calls are answered by a 40-member gospel choir, reminding him to "get through it" and that "love’s the greatest thing." Like many other songs on 13, "Tender" is a forceful, moving and terribly sad song about breaking up with someone you still love. The emotional immediacy of these songs is a revelation, and repeated listenings don’t diminish their power.

It seems Blur has finally discovered its sound – and found itself in the process.