[24 April 2014]
Sound Affects Editor
Nowadays, two of 1994’s main music-related events are symbolically inextricably linked: the death of Kurt Cobain and the rise of Britpop. Never mind that Pearl Jam and the other grunge bands continued to make records and sell millions for years following Cobain’s suicide—the myth that has arisen around the Britpop era is that its laddish optimism and nostalgic tunefulness were a much-needed respite from the gloom and sludge emanating from Seattle in the early ‘90s. Surely, 1994 was the year that Britpop really started to pick up steam: Suede was trying to consolidate the success that accompanied its debut album, Oasis and Elastica received a rapturous reception when they issued their insta-classic freshman LPs, and Blur positioned itself as the standard-bearer of British rock when it put out its career-resurrecting Parklife, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
Parklife is the middle installment of Blur’s so-called “Life Trilogy”, a section of the band’s discography bookended by Modern Life Is Rubbish (1993) and The Great Escape (1995). Don’t bother trying to tie these three records into some overarching master concept work—what loosely unites them is their recurring thematic fixation with the group’s home country of England, its people and customs and rituals, (that, and the fact that the boys in Blur originally wanted to work the word “life” into all the LP titles). What really distinguishes the “Life Trilogy” is its status as the apex of Blur’s output. Starting with Modern Life Is Rubbish (actually starting with the “Popscene” single the year before), Blur stopped fiddling around with already-stale baggy and shoegaze routines and found a galvanizing source of inspiration by taking stock of the collision of American and English culture occurring around it. In looking forward at what England was becoming, Blur also looked backward and rooted its new sound in the clever guitar pop of British heavyweights the Beatles and the Kinks. Blur frontman Damon Albarn was cocky enough to rise up to the challenge of his heroes, and over the course of these three albums penned numerous winning character studies of imaginary countrymen that inhabited all sorts of spaces on the spectrum between affectionate and mocking.
Though Blur’s output has been spotty in the last decade, Albarn has been a busy man; his new solo album, Everyday Robots, comes out next week. Given the imminent arrival of Albarn’s LP and the anniversary of arguably his best record, Sound Affects presents a rundown of the ten best songs from Blur’s most beloved era. Admittedly singles make up the bulk of the countdown, but rest assured that Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape are a veritable embarrassment of riches—indeed, it took a great deal of restraint to avoid doubling the list by adding a whopping heap of Modern Life deep cuts. Still, this list should make clear that the material Blur recorded during the “Life” period is more diverse and daring than the cartoon narrative of Britpop would imply. Romantic waltzes, Beatleseque ballads, cheeky dance club numbers, alt-rock barn burners—between 1992 and 1996 Blur examined every nook of contemporary English life in a dizzying array of ways, and looking back that diversity and the stunning level of quality that accompanied it stands as an astonishing accomplishment well worth commemorating.
This album cut is a prime example of the band’s oft-ignored ability to groove. Alex James’ loping bassline locks into the clipped guitar lines with surgical precision, an effect befitting a song about a man so straight-laced he finds his greatest pleasure in being on time. “He’s pleased with himself / He’s pleased with himself”, Albarn recites in for the chorus, the ribbing tone of his words more subtle than it would become in later efforts. Also, never underestimate the value of a well-placed stop in an arrangement (“And then he…”).
Less a proper tune than an extended jingle, the title track to Blur’s third LP makes up for its lack of harmonic and melodic variance by turning the microphone over to Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels, who in his role as an unindustrious people-watcher delivers Britpop’s most memorable monologue. Daniels’ character isn’t ambitious by any means (his immortal description of his routine goes “I get up when I want, except on Wednesdays when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen / I put my trousers on, have a cup of tea, and think about leaving me house”) but that doesn’t stop him from taking delight in calling attention to the foibles of others (“Who’s that gut lord marching? You should cut down on your ‘porklife’, mate, get some exercise!”). Though Albarn’s lyrics set up the Daniels character for ridicule, Daniels’ delivery diffuses any mean-spirited intent, instead casting him as a lovable eccentric whom the audience can’t help but support with its complementary shouts of “Parklife!” between lines. There’s certainly no mistaking that the instances where Albarn stands in to recite Daniels’ part in concert never quite match the warm fraternal feel of the studio version.
“Turn It Up” is easy to overlook, given it’s buried deep in the back half of Modern Life Is Rubbish. Be sure you don’t neglect it, though, for once you make your way through several seconds of oscillating feedback you’ll discover what might very well the be the prototypical feel-good Britpop rocker, the sort of tuneful number slighter peers like the Boo Radleys, Shed Seven, and hordes of others later pumped out in their bids to garner radio play. The song’s instant earworm of a chorus—“Turn it up / Turn it off / Turn it in!”—is infectiously celebratory, and each utterance of it makes an already appealing track even more winsome.
Never mind the quirky curio “Lot 105”—“This Is a Low” is the true curtain call on Parklife. Surely the most magnificent song ever written about shipping routes, the track unfolds and billows until it is fully realized as a glorious hymn that draws all the disparate slices-of-life examined on Parklife under its birds-eye gaze. Blur aimed to replicate this song’s majestic sweep later on—namely with “The Universal” from The Great Escape—but the band has yet to equal the result captured here.
The twinkly melodicism of “End of the Century” belies the sadness that underpins the song. It’s the story of a couple set in its ways, waking up and falling asleep to the comforting glow of the television screen each and every day. Consider the loving affection they afford the appliance—“Good morning TV / You’re looking so healthy”—and contrast that with the resigned mentions of ant-infested lodgings and parched lips. These partners aren’t entirely happy with where their lives have ended up, but the fear of being alone binds them together—a dilemma poignantly captured by Albarn’s pen. Like much of Graham Coxon’s best guitarwork with the band, his scuzzed-out scale runs in the prechoruses sound completely mental when heard in isolation; in actually, they slot in perfectly with the rest of the tune.
While Modern Life Is Rubbish restored some of the band’s luster with the British music press, it was “Girls and Boys”, the first single from Parklife, that unequivocally restored Blur’s commercial fortunes. In light of its popularity (it reached the top five of the British singles chart) and its prominence in this entire era of the band’s output, it’s interesting to note how atypical it is of the quartet’s rockist guitar-pop strain. Then again, it was a brilliant—and amusing—stroke to score the group’s half-intrigued/half-appalled snapshot of island holiday carnal debauchery to a delightfully cheesy Eurodisco groove. Between Alex James’ bassline (second only to Green Day’s “Longview” in the ranking of 1994’s top bass parts) and the song’s ridiculously catchy chorus, it’s no surprise that this one became an instant audience favorite.
You’ve probably noticed by now that The Great Escape isn’t well-represented on this list. Blur’s fourth album is never bad—it’s actually quite enjoyable, particularly the singles—but it’s more a consolidation of the ideas first explored on Modern Life Is Rubbish and then perfected on Parklife mixed with some bizarre experiments, and few of its better moments are of the same caliber as those found on those two LPs. One big exception is “Charmless Man”, as obvious a choice for a single as anything in Blur’s songbook. Right from the start, “Charmless Man”—yet another one of Albarn’s many lyrical character studies—bounds into view clutching bundles of irresistible hooks, a stark contrast with the insufferable and off-putting personality of the title character. Albarn has a tendency to inhabit his characters at a remove, inserting a distance between them and himself even when he speaks in the first person, so it’s a hoot to hear him squirm as he tries to pry himself away from an overly privileged fellow who’s so posh he “knows his claret from his Beaujolais”.
Poised and exquisite, “To the End” is one of the loveliest Blur ballads. Albarn’s fake Cockney accent aside, “To the End” dispenses with the cheekiness that increasingly typified the band’s output during this period in favor of a swoony romanticism. The song’s verses set the mood by pairing up Albarn with Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier for an understated bilingual duet, and its choruses seal the deal—dozens of listens later, the way Albarn hits “And it loooooooks like we might’ve made it” over a swelling string section swells never fails to get to me.
Alongside Suede’s “The Drowners”, this stopgap non-LP single was instrumental in inaugurating Britpop. After chasing the baggy bandwagon to an artistic dead end, Blur finally uncoupled itself from riding the current trends to instead carve out its own identity. “Popscene” was certainly an audacious way to go about it, given its lyrics function as a pointed critique of the self-congratulatory inner circle of London’s then-moribund indie scene. The song barrels onward at a bracing clip unlike anything Blur had evidenced beforehand, as if the band can’t wait to cast off its shackles. Indeed, when Albarn sneers lines like “And everyone is a clever clone / A chrome-covered clone am I”, it’s not entirely clear if he’s assuming a character or taking himself to task for being a conformist up to that point in the pop limelight—either way, the energy radiates from the band audibly invigorated by clear break from business-as-usual it has afforded itself. History initially treated “Popscene” cruelly—it stalled on the singles chart, was omitted from the UK tracklist of Modern Life Is Rubbish, and remained unavailable on British shores in any format for a long time—but now it’s widely (and rightly) perceived to be one of Blur’s high points.
A better commercial success than “Popscene” yet not the full-on career restoration that “Girls and Boys” was the following year, the first proper single of the “Life” period was an utterly pivotal release. “For Tomorrow” tied together geographical reference points, a reverence for British pop history (both in terms of aesthetics and quality, “For Tomorrow” sounds like it could’ve been written by David Bowie in his glam rock prime), and a guarded optimism concerning British life in the 1990s, and in doing so announced to the public that Damon Albarn at last found his voice as a songwriter. Far less critical and cynical than many other songs from the so-called “Life Trilogy” (indeed, less than most other cuts from Modern Life Is Rubbish, the band’s ostensible “state of the nation circa 1993” document), there’s a radiant purity to the song that elevates it beyond being merely a well-written tune into a song worth rallying around. More so than any song bar Oasis’ “Live Forever”, from its forward-looking title down to its seemingly endless coda “For Tomorrow” encapsulates the spirit of Britpop, the spirit of a generation who spent the previous decade subsisting on the fringe only to find that the wider world was slowly becoming theirs for the taking.