Blur - Parklife

It was a profoundly strange experience to type out the headline “Parklife Turns 20.” More so than the other anniversaries I’ve written for Stereogum, the fact that landmark Pulp, Blur, and Oasis albums are arriving at their twentieth anniversaries is something that just doesn’t quite compute. Last month, I wrote about Soundgarden’s Superunknown upon its own twentieth birthday, and remarked upon how this year has an odd split between American records that represent the peak and (and thus, the beginning of the end) of grunge and that first break of Alt Nation, and the records that represent the beginning of something else entirely over in Britain. Parklife still feels vital in a way that those American records do not. Superunknown and VS. and In Utero sound exactly like twenty years ago is supposed to sound. Intellectually, obviously it’s easy to conceive that Britpop was indeed very much a thing of the ’90s itself, and critically it’s easy to understand the sounds that make it up are just as stereotypically ’90s as fuzzy drop-D guitar riffs; you just have to adjust your context. Maybe this stuff has just held up remarkably well. Whatever the reason, Parklife does not sound twenty years old.

This is sort of weird to think about, but Parklife was at the time positioned as something of a comeback for Blur. After seeing some moderate success with early singles like “She’s So High” and “There’s No Other Way,” (which hit #8 on the UK Singles Chart) Blur had departed from their more Madchester-indebted beginnings and approached what would become the Britpop sound with 1993′s Modern Life Is Rubbish. That transition was a strained one. Blur may have flirted with pop success during the Leisure days, but they weren’t taken seriously critically, and were seen as a ripoff of and studio cash-in on bands like Happy Mondays, the Stone Roses, and the Charlatans. As Michael wrote in his anniversary piece for Modern Life Is Rubbish last year, Blur returned from their first, by-all-accounts miserable tour of America with a frontman possessed: to dethrone bands like Suede and take the mantle as the era’s eminent British band, to assert an identity of Britishness sonically and thematically. Blur’s sophomore album had to change their lives and prove something. It was to be a departure from the last generation of British music Blur had at first been lumped in with, as well as a sharp rejection of the American grunge movement. Modern Life Is Rubbish achieved the latter, allowing Blur to crystalize that idiosyncratically English identity Albarn was seeking, but it didn’t make them stars.

With Modern Life Is Rubbish failing to produce major singles, the making of Parklife had a make-it-or-break-it vibe to its creation, partially due to the band’s precipitous financial footing at the time. It of course wound up catapulting them to superstardom, boasting four hit singles (“To The End,” “End Of A Century,” “Parklife,” and “Girls & Boys,” one of the only Blur songs aside from “Song 2″ that I’ve ever heard in public in America). The album was massive, and depending on your allegiance and preferences it basically comes down to this, Definitely Maybe, or Different Class as the quintessential and most pivotal Britpop album. There’s a reason we chose this week to do Britpop Week.

In hindsight, Parklife is the second installment in a trilogy that begins with Modern Life and ends with The Great Escape. Each of these are high up on the list of my favorite albums, period (as are Blur and 13, but I digress), and there have been different moments when each one had its time as my favorite spot amongst the three. I assume I’m in the minority here, but there’s also been a lot of times where Parklife was actually my least favorite of the three. This is not the most rational critical take, and I am aware of this. Modern Life was indeed a manifesto and a confident artistic statement on its own, but Parklife refined the vision, perfected and deepened Albarn’s panoramic take on a certain slice of British life and culture in the ’90s. The Great Escape took it one step further — a glossy, overblown, final act that threw the same themes and images of Parklife into a sort of pop art overdrive. That’s actually why I liked it the most for so long; it was the disturbed and disturbing hangover to Parklife. (Also, it had “The Universal.” Also, it had “He Thought Of Cars” and “Entertain Me.”) There was nowhere else they could take this version of themselves after that, and they needed the reset button of Blur. You could likely make the argument that there was nowhere they could take this version of themselves after Parklife, really. There are strands of Britpop that go back further than 1994, and the genre splintered and mutated even into the ’00s depending on how you look at it, but no matter what parameters you apply to it, Parklife remains definitive. Albarn said it all here.

There is impressive range on most of the Blur albums, but it’s particularly staggering on their Britpop trilogy. Parklife wasn’t my entry point into listening to Blur, but two of its songs were: “Girls & Boys” and “This Is A Low.” These could not be further apart tonally or sonically. “Girls & Boys” blew my mind when I first heard it. That near-indecipherable first line that opens it, and thus opens Parklife. The way the guitars first slash in under Albarn drawling “On holiday” during the first verse and then keep scraping as Albarn sings “Love in the ’90s/ is paranoid.” The fact that there’s a lyric that goes “Love in the ’90s/ is paranoid” in the first place, and the fact that it’s the first of Albarn’s many proclamations about the times-they-lived-in. That hilarious and brilliant and nonsensical chorus: “Girls who are boys who like boys to be girls/ who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys.” I didn’t know who the hell this guy was, but I wanted to hear more.

Where “Girls & Boys” starts Parklife off with a squiggly bit of dance-pop equal parts trashy and snarky, “This Is A Low” essentially ends it with what remains one of Albarn’s best sad songs. And while he’s wielded wit and condescension ably throughout his career, Albarn excels at a dark song: “Sing,” “Resigned,” “Beetlebum,” “Tender” (or, you know, all of 13), Gorillaz’ “El Manana,” The Good, the Bad, & the Queen’s “Herculean.” But “This Is A Low” still stands out. Most of Parklife is jaunty and spiky and acerbically tongued, and then “This Is A Low” comes along as this entirely crushing conclusion. The power is mostly in that chorus, which is built on a melody that seems to be the exact aural embodiment of every shade of despair and loneliness available in the human condition. The importance of Graham Coxon’s guitar solo(s) cannot be overestimated here, though. The way the guitar rises up out of one refrain, a gradually overwhelming tide of distortion, and then twists and echoes against itself sums up just as much anguish as Albarn’s vocals. It does something truly powerful when it groans to a halt, then calls back out insistently right before the last intensified refrain comes in. It’ll bring you to your knees. It might be the best moment in all of Blur’s catalog.

It’s a long journey from the plastic beginnings of “Girls & Boys” to the emotive “This Is A Low,” with Blur touching on New Wave, punk, mod, lounge-pop, and just plain pop over the course of it all. It’s a sprawling, all-encompassing thing; the originally title London probably wouldn’t have felt like an overreach. The highlights within it probably depend on your proclivities. It might be my thing for New Wave, but “Trouble In The Message Centre” was always one of my favorite Blur deep cuts. “Badhead” might fool you with its introductory horn blasts, but that’s another gorgeously sad tune that functions as the final chapter in Parklife’s first third. Opening with an almost cartoonishly rubbery synth-bass and continuing along one of Blur’s most synthetic-sounding rhythms, “London Loves” plays off the cinematic “To The End” to give Parklife its fittingly multi-faceted centerpiece.

Last month at South by Southwest, I saw Damon Albarn twice. He is a very different performer solo than with Blur — more subdued, playing balladeer rather than frontman. Bizarrely, even in talking to people ten or fifteen years older than myself who had ostensibly been standing around waiting to see him, I found myself repeating a similar explanation: “The singer of Blur? No? He was also behind Gorillaz?” Without fail, it was the latter that people recognized. That’s part of the fun of this whole Britpop Week and of looking back at a record like Parklife — there’s an evangelism streak to it, an urge to geek out about artists that are only, still, tangentially known Stateside. That makes the process of revisiting this stuff invigorating, and Parklife still stands as one of a handful of pinnacles in the whole narrative. It’s a rare thing to come around to a landmark album’s twentieth birthday and still feel the need to climb onto something, demand people’s attention, and let them know there is a brilliant song called “This Is A Low” on a brilliant album called Parklife, and that they are missing out. Intellectually, you know it’s not true, but it doesn’t matter: two decades on, Parklife still has the sound of something that’s just starting.

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Comments (42)
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  2. As a younger sibling, this was one of the first alternative albums I was exposed to as a young chap at the age of 10. I remember “Girls & Boys” being the anthem of a summer day trip to a particular popular cranberry juice maker on the coastline and the excitement to finding that the Headshrinkers were now available in wrestling action figure form on the way home, but it was a Monday and a holiday, so RAW — which was still not dedicated to being live all of the time — was preempted that night due to the U.S. Open of tennis. Nice memories, none the less.

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    • I also have some fuzzy memories of Boys and Girls, however it’s Song 2 that I (and the rest of NA) remember most. It’s only been over the past couple of years that I have truly started to get into and appreciate Blur, and Damon Albarn in general. Can you believe the career this guy has had? It’s remarkable, and without a doubt the most successful and inspiring body of work put together by a single individual since, maybe, ever (other than Dr. Dee [obvs]).

      Even though I’m a little late to the party, I’m glad that I’m now aware and able to enjoy the newer, somber jams, while having the saudade/sehnsucht for the glory days of Blur, which I missed (because I was listening to Aqua – so lost, so alone).

      PS the title should have been “London.” The album deserves it.

      • He’s also a fantastic performer. He was rightfully focused and subdued when I saw him live with The Good, The Bad, and the Queen, but I’ve never seen anyone have so much fun on stage than when I saw him live with the Gorillaz.

      • I was listening to Aqua, too, back then, but I think Aquarium came out three years later, so that is the amount of time until we will have wait until “Disposable Euro Dance-Pop Week” in which we get an intense read about “Barbie Girl,” how “Doctor Jones” was the exceptionally better but unheralded single and how some Fleetwood Mac type shit led to the Danish-Norwegian musical cartoon characters demise.

        • I would actually enjoy a Eurodance retrospective. Who the hell actually were Haddaway, Culture Beat, the Captain Hollywood Project, Corona, Robin S., Snap!, Crystal Waters, Robert Miles, Aqua, Technotronic, Gina G., Alice Deejay, Scatman John,and the Real McCoy? Where did they come from? What were they thinking when they made those weird anonymous dance songs? At least it’s a music topic that hasn’t been beaten to death yet through thinkpieces.

        • Solid Doctor Jones reference. Always reminders me of playing Theme hospital OH YES I DID JUST SAY THAT

  3. Shite-life

    • Y’all need to lighten up. I was just quoting Mr. Noel Gallagher in the spirit of Britpop week.

      Anyway, “This is a Low” hits me in all the feels. There’s a performance of it from Glastonbury on YouTube (I forget what year it’s from) and Blur just absolutely knocks it out of the park(life).

      • I wish Grammy acceptance speeches were this entertaining…

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqAT2F2kNKc

      • If there is anything I’ve learned this week on the Internet, particularly in what I write here on Stereogum (which apparently is read well beyond just the realm of us in these pages,) it’s that everyone needs to lighten up and stop taking themselves so seriously when it comes to out-of-the-ass flagrant opinions that are really just meaningless drivel, then running to Twitter to complain about it, and then attacking the writer of of the flagrant opinion of starting drama that in turn is wasting their valuable that they are sure to mention is more valuable than yours. But then again why’d you run into Twitter to complain about it if you didn’t want it become drama? Ahh, to have the power of simply ignoring something altogether…

        Sorry, tough week. The results of which will show for the worst in this week’s Shut Up, Dude, I am sure…

  4. I was in college and picked this up almost immediately upon release. I discovered it because I was a huge Pet Shop Boys fan and noticed they remixed Girls and Boys. In the USA, in West Virginia of all places, (almost) every person I played this album to immediately went out and bought it for themselves. Kids that were into country, rap, thrash metal, you name it.

    I’d never heard anything more British in my life, and I was already a life-long Beatles listener. A lot of the vernacular was unfamiliar (didnt know “bad head” = headache, for instance). Hell, I didnt even know what a bank holiday was. It was almost like a foreign language. The Great Escape was even more impenetrable, but by then I’d actually met someone from the UK and they were able to explain what a boy racer was to me, for instance.

    I forced Oasis (first two albums only) and the Charlatans onto everyone as well but never got a reaction like Parklife did. Too bad my school didnt have a radio station.

  5. I know this is specifically an article about Blur, but this is just another in the continuation of the false, Blur-centric, narrative that Stereogum’s “Britpop Week” has been propping up all week. It’s as if the writing staff learned everything that they needed to know about Britpop by watching “No Distance Left To Run” (the Blur documentary). This is manifested in the continued marginalization of Suede and their staggering importance in the creation and popularization of Britpop, even though their particular brand of Britpop largely remains the road not taken but the waves of immitators who were more keen to rewrite “Parklife” & “Live Forever” than “Animal Nitrate.”

    Suede were NOT some baggy-wannabe act, imitating the Manchester sound on their debut album (they never released the music from that period of their existance), released months prior to “Modern Life Is Rubbish.” They shouldn’t be thrown out of the Britpop discussion just because they preferred Bowie to the Kinks or because Brett Anderson would rather not be involved in any comparison with Damon Albarn. Their self-titled first record was the fastest selling debut in the history of the British charts at the time of its release (a feat that would be bettered by Oasis and then Elastica) and they shoved Britpop in the faces of the bloated elite at the Brit Awards in 1993 with their shambolic performance of “Animal Nitrate.” If anything Blur following suit with the vision of English obsessed alternative music has as much to do with the migration of Justine Frischmann from Suede’s camp to Blur’s as it does with the terrible American tour that Blur was forced to go on in 1992.

  6. Ry Lea, MVP of the week.

    Really enjoying all of this Albarn/Blur coverage this week, guys, and enjoying the longer pieces in general. Please keep it up, and ol Donny will do his part to keep it up. And that’s… what he said.

    Yours,
    D<3

  7. Parklife turns 20 and I still lose control when incidentally I listen “Girls & Boys” on radio, a party, wherever. Reminds me the school years and the best college parties.

    Also, “This is a Low” has been my all time Blur favourite, and the one that sticked me to Blur for a long time. Parklife surprised me with the well balance between irony, empathy and excellent music.

    Thanks a lot, Ryan, this was an amazing piece.

  8. This is a fun little remix of ‘Girls & Boys’ from Soulwax. It’s also visually pretty hilarious:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlXOW10ewKA#t=2004

  9. Hearing Girls & Boys on the radio in Canada, I thought it was kind of funny, but Blur might have been one of those bizarre British bands who somehow get a hit single in North America. I didn’t really get into Blur until 2 things happened; (1) I watched the video for Girls & Boys, and appreciated how much of a piss-take the song really was, and (2) an Anglophile friend of mine gave me a UK mixtape with Bang and He Thought of Cars.

    I still can’t believe how under the radar they’ve stayed over the last 20 years. The MLIR-13 run is pretty incredible, with The Great Escape and Blur probably being the “low points” of that run.

  10. great read and i loved this line especially: “The power is mostly in that chorus, which is built on a melody that seems to be the exact aural embodiment of every shade of despair and loneliness available in the human condition.”

    btw, can’t wait for the blue album 20 year retrospective and rubberneck :):)

  11. I always hoped the dog on the right would win.

  12. One thing I have to take issue with is the idea that Definitely Maybe is part of this “trio” of definitive Britpop albums. Fact is, (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was a *much* bigger and more important Oasis record than Definitely Maybe. Perhaps that’s just my American perspective, but I believe even in the UK it was so massive that something like 1 out of ever 3 people owned a copy of it.

    Also, Parklife is great. End of a Century is my 2nd favorite Blur song after The Universal. The end.

  13. Production-wise, (i.e. the goofy synth stuff on the opening track) this album totally sounds 20 years old.

    • For reals. Superunknown sounds old but Parklife doesn’t? Are you cereal? I’m not sure any song on earth sounds more like it is 20 years old than Girls and Boys.

  14. I feel so out of the damn loop with all this britpop stuff. I don’t hate it, but I’ve never been all that into it either.

    • Nostalgia, mate ;)

      • I was way too young at the time to be able to experience the era properly, maybe I’d feel different if I were, say, 10 years older.

    • I’m right there with ya. I also still don’t fully understand what it is. I mean, Blur and Oasis sound nothing alike to me, but oh well. Probably an unpopular opinion, but I definitely prefer the later Blur of 13 and Think Tank. “Coffee and TV” and “Jets” will forever be my favorites of theirs.

  15. Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, Great Escape and Blur are all masterpieces. That Good, the Bad & the Queen record is tops too.

  16. Holy god the music videos for this album are horrid!

  17. Thanks for the fantastic write-up. Brit-pop was best exemplified by the mighty 3: Oasis, Radiohead and Blur.

  18. I think Britpop week is interesting because we can’t talk about any of these albums without mentioning the other artists making albums at the same time. That doesn’t happen often. I think Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and The National are three of the greatest guitar bands working right now but I almost never talk about their albums as part of a shared cultural experience. Rock’n'Roll doesn’t seem to have that “interesting” of a narrative right now. I’d argue that hip hop does to a certain extent though, which is exiting.

  19. Here’s a dorky story. When I was 12, I sold all my Korn cds at CD Warehouse to buy “BLUR” and “Parklife.” I had previously gotten into Bowie through Nine Inch Nails’ recommendation, and this was yet another step into indie music nerd life for me.

    Maybe I’m lame, but my favorite track was Clover over Dover

  20. this write-up convinced me to listen to Blur and now they’re one of my favorite bands of all time, thanks Ryan (and Stereogum for having a britpop week)

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