It’s really easy to analyze new releases from every Tom, Dick, and Harry out there. It’s damn hard to write a review of the album that made you want to do it in the first place.
Of course that credit isn’t due to just one disc, but a whole bunch of discs from a whole bunch of bands. A whole bunch of albums that made my spine tingle and made me jump around the room playing air guitar—when I was 10, when I was 15—and hell, even now—when I’m 22.
Blur’s Parklife, however, has resonated through my music buying patterns like few others. It’s tied up the loose ends of my tastes and my collections; it’s tied into my love of middle-class suburbia and my love of music written by temperamental, self-absorbed geniuses who produce as much dreck as brilliance.
Of course, many have bought this album, many have heard this album, many have praised this album. What’s known about it is that it’s a hallmark of ‘90s (or any era, really) Britpop, the album that (along with either of the first two Oasis discs) more or less blew up the Britpop scene, spawning countless imitators from Menswear to Ooberman in the process.
Why I love this album is the question at hand, however. What excited me so much at the time was that Parklife opened up musical doors for me. When I bought the album, I was a 15-year-old high school sophomore immersed in the mainstream alternative rock of the time, and highly conscious of what was “cool” (by a 15-year-old’s standards, of course) and what wasn’t. I knew I loved some things that were deemed “uncool” like the Cars and Cheap Trick and some other ‘80s rock. I also liked some “cool” things like Better Than Ezra and the Presidents of the United States of America—how things change in the space of a few years! But when Parklife came in the mail and I popped it on the stereo, I heard the synthesis of so many different genres of pop music. Blur touch on David Bowie/Gary Numan-style new wave, Pet Shop Boys’ dance pop, mod rock, punk, space rock, waltzes, grungy alt-rock, and power pop on Parklife, and instead of feeling careless and patchwork, the transitions are all seamless. In many ways Parklife made the new feel connected to the old. They were a band unashamed to use synthesizers at a time when—to my American, grunge-soaked ears—that was just a great big no. And it works, it all works so well.
This was due in part to Damon Albarn, a temperamental creative genius if there ever was one. With Parklife, Albarn created a series of sketches that outlined a portrait of the British working class that was at once affectionate and crass. “Girls and Boys” and the title track both show Albarn’s characters engaging in frivolous, popular pastimes (in this case, the club scene and the dog track), while “Clover Over Dover” and “This is a Low” show the same characters despairing over their own inability to break out of the monotony of their own lives. While Albarn would try a similar concept again on The Great Escape, it didn’t work as well because he didn’t seem to care about his characters; in fact, he seemed more than a little contemptuous of them. On Parklife, we sense that Albarn’s characters are flawed, but real, and worthy of attention and love. These characters despair because of their sheer mediocrity, but they still like to have fun. They’re like Sims, the CGI people in any of Electronic Art’s “Sim” games—ultimately and tragically doomed to live their reality, but kept going by equally mundane cultural diversions. Heck, their lives are a mirror of most of our lives. Maybe it’s a pessimistic and critical life to look at life, but maybe it’s also a realistic view.
I’ve always been interested in the mundane myself—why do people live in suburbs, why do people see bad movies, why do people shop in malls? And for me, this was not from a “holier than thou” stance, but rather from the status of an equal: I like these things too. So spending much of my late teens driving around plastic suburbs, buzzing past traffic lights on flat, straight thoroughfares and sipping a soda from a plastic cup pulled out of a fast food window, there were few albums that fit better than Parklife. It was and is the album that best summarized my teen years, absent the fact that I didn’t grow up in Britain. I was one of these common people, I realized why it was pre-packaged and boring and wrong, yet I loved it and wouldn’t trade it for anything else.
This was all set against a diverse soundscape. Graham Coxon (who has, sadly, just recently left the band on less-than-friendly terms) proved here that he was Britpop’s most underrated guitarist, contributing chunky and sloppy but utterly perfect riffs and chords to each track. His guitar parts never sounded as crisp as they do on Parklife, where they charge in each time with a bite. Parklife also marked the beginning of Albarn’s fascination with ‘80s-sounding synths. While “Girls and Boys”, the disco song that became Blur’s first substantial American hit, is an obvious example, a better example is on “London Loves”, one of my favorite tracks here. Lyrically, the song talks about Londoners’ nosiness and fascination (and exploitation of) the failures of others, something that one needn’t look further than the British tabloids for. But musically, it’s damn terrific—mixing a paranoid, XTC-ish guitar riff from Coxon over a bassy “dum-dum” synth hit that runs the entirety of the verses. The song winds itself more tightly on the choruses, with Albarn’s vocals reaching into the falsetto range (as they often do), then seems to unfurl like a spring, with a few seconds of near-chaotic guitar squalling before settling back into the rhythmic verses again. It’s the perfect mix of the slick and calculated (the synth riff that never lets up) and of wound-up tension. And it’s all still within the confines of really, really catchy and accessible pop music.
In fact, one of the most significant things that Blur (and the ‘90s Britpop movement, really) did was reintroduce the importance of the pop single. Blur realize that the A-side is as much an art as the album, and not just from a marketing sense. Pop singles are pop culture, and Parklife spawned four “proper” singles but probably three-quarters of the album could’ve easily fit in on the radio.
Some might say that Parklife isn’t for everyone—too British, too lofty (or boring, to some) a concept, too poppy even. But no other album made me sit up and realize that pop music didn’t have to be disposable—didn’t have to be about the MTV flavor of the month—like this one did. And it still sounds just as good to this 22-year-old’s ears as it did to that 15-year-olds ears. The sad part is that every album I’ve bought since has had to measure up to this unrealistic standard.
// Notes from the Road
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