In honor of the 15th anniversary of its release, Blur’s Parklife has gotten a lot of extra play on my iPod lately. 1990s Britpop comprises an alarming percentage of my life’s all-time hit parade, with the bulk of it emerging from smack in the middle of that decade — Oasis’s What’s the Story (Morning Glory)?; Supergrass’s I Should Coco; Bluetones’s Expecting to Fly; Seahorses’ Do It Yourself. And Parklife is noteworthy for the fact that it is the only Blur CD I love. In fact, it is the only Blur CD I like. If we’re really getting honest here, it is the only Blur CD that doesn’t put me to sleep.
I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, as Parklife remains the band’s best-selling release. It was my first introduction to the band, their two previous discs having somehow eluded me. Lots of people feel partial to their first taste of a favorite band — usually not to the complete exclusion of the rest of their catalogue, however. I really tried! After Parklife grabbed me and took up permanent residence in my collection, I marched right out and got Leisure and Modern Life Is Rubbish. Later, I faithfully lined up when The Great Escape and all subsequent releases came out. They all ended up in the resale pile.
Modern Life Is Rubbish is the one that comes closest to Parklife‘s greatness. “Advert” is in the same vein as the exuberantly manic “Bank Holiday”, but just doesn’t take it far enough. Vocalist/lyricist Damon Albarn’s party trick, Songs About Guys with Funny Names, started with Rubbish‘s “Colin Zeal”, and continued on through later releases with “Ernold Same” and “Dan Abnormal”. But it is on Parklife, with “Jubilee” and “Tracy Jacks” (and even Bill Barrett from “Magic America”) that Albarn’s characters are the most fleshed out, the funniest, and the most tragic.
The bottom line is this: what Parklife has that none of Blur’s other records have is balls. I don’t know if the band let up on the weed-smoking or had a brief fling with amphetamines during its recording, but everything else these dudes ever made is a crashing bore to me. Sure, “Song 2” is a crowd-pleaser that will never fail to get me pumped up for the hockey game, but that’s about it. Parklife is like a dream date — it’s smart, it’s funny, it rocks, it’s tender, it gets your blood pumping, and when it’s over, you can’t wait to do it all over again.
At the same time, Parklife is not any sort of radical departure from Blur’s signature sound. It leads off with what I feel is the weakest track, the hit single “Girls & Boys”, a song that would fit on any other Blur project (i.e., yawnsville). (Hey, as long as I’m blaspheming here, let me go all the way.) Neither “Tracy Jacks” nor “End of a Century” explores any new terrain. Things only start to get interesting on the title track, which introduces the Cockney narrator who seems to be present for all the other stories told on the album, but only speaks here. He is voiced by no less an icon of mod culture than Phil Daniels, who played Jimmy in Quadrophenia, and starred in the song’s video.
“Bank Holiday” is a favorite for the sheer blast of punk energy that heretofore did not exist in Blur’s bag of tricks. I have to think it was this track that sent the band’s record company head into panic mode when he first heard the full album demos (legend has it he declared, “This is a mistake”), but I wish Blur had explored this side of their sound more often in later works. They did not. Perhaps Albarn just gets a wild hare for a non-sequitir like this sometimes. He did the same thing on the self-titled debut of his Gorillaz project with the one-minute-36-second ditty called “Punk”, which is the only adrenaline rush on that otherwise stoner-approved opus.
“Badhead”, “To the End”, and “Clover Over Dover” bring the soft and floaty, as “Far Out”, “The Debt Collector” and “Lot 105” bring the wierd and quirky. Blur fans the world over have annointed “This Is a Low” as the band’s magnum opus, and for once I will agree with them. Its beauty never fails to get me right in the gut. I have to close my eyes and turn it up and roll around in it for all its five-minutes-and-six-seconds — I try not to listen while I’m driving.
So color me shocked to learn, from bassist Alex James’s biography, Bit of a Blur, that the song is about the maritime conditions forecast on BBC radio. The “low” is a “low-pressure system” like you hear about from your local meteorologist. Here I’ve been wrenched by the heartache and depression and beleaguered, bedraggled hope of this song for the last 15 years… and it’s about the weather.
Maybe that’s why Parklife is such a definitive work in the Britpop canon, and why it is so singularly representative of Blur as a band. It has the slightly removed, antiseptic quality of the wry observer who is too smart for his own good. The commentaries on English life at the “end of a century” are so razor-sharp, so spot-on — but Damon Albarn and his cohorts were not ones to get any dirt on their hands, like some of their contemporaries so readily did. There is a reason that Blur were such perfect pretty-boy prep school foils to Oasis’s hardscrabble bullies. Parklife is as close as the band ever came to crossing that line, the line between sterile observers and messy participants, between “Southern Fairies” and “Northern Monkeys”. And that’s what makes it the greatest record they ever made.