Damon Albarn's got a new album arriving in a few days, and his band's most popular album commemorates its 20th birthday. What better time to pay tribute to the period when Blur put the "pop" in Britpop?
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.
(Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1993)
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.
(Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1993)
"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.