The Band: Damon Albarn (Vocals, Guitar, Other Instruments)
Graham Coxon (Guitar, Backing Vocals)
Alex James (Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals)
Dave Rowntree (Drums, Percussion)
Released: 1994 (Parlophone)
Looking back at the mid-1990s British music scene now, it all seems quite odd. The era of Britrock, with bands such as Supergrass
dominating the radio waves was in full swing, and it seemed that feel good, resoundingly British music had simply taken over. However, at the heart of this movement were two bands that were evidently head and shoulders above the rest. Both Blur, and arch rivals Oasis
, dominated the movement, competing with each other for chart placings, and for the hearts of fans, in spite of being two very different bands. Oasis
were the more hard rocking anthemic band, indebted to The Beatles
, while Blur were more of an arty pop band, following in the footsteps of The Kinks
and The Small Faces
, in being so resoundingly British that it's untrue. And, of course, there's no denying that much of the conflict between these 2 bands stemmed from the famous "North/South divide" in Britain, adding yet more edge to fresh releases from each band.
was Blur's third album, following on from the previous year's Modern Life Is Rubbish
, and the largely forgotten debut album, Leisure
. However, although it's now regarded as not having aged well, which, in large parts, it hasn't, this says something about its effect at the time. It effectively not only blasted Blur well and truly into the public eye, but also serves as a genuinely era-defining album, and tells you what it was like to be of a certain class, and living in London during this time. Albarn, taking the approach of an artist to his music, succeeds in creating a series of characters here, that speak more loudly than mere words about what real, everyday life is like, although rather than being a social commentary in the heavily cynical mood of bands such as Radiohead
, this is largely a fun album, in spite of regularly employing a cynically humorous tone.
Let's take the example of the two massive singles from this album, in Girls & Boys
, and the title track, Parklife
. Girls & Boys
pokes fun at the annual British exodus to Greece in lines such as "Following the herd down to Greece", while talking about sexual confusion, in the chorus which is made to be sung by the exact group of drunken holiday makers, in spite of it's tongue-twisting nature. The synthesised pop tones of this song in particular make it a very strong opening track, as well as immediately letting you know what the album's all about. And then there's Parklife
itself. Featuring British actor Phil Daniels on lead vocals, this is a wonderfully ironic satire of English suburbia, with the targets of the song all being things we can identify with, whether they're the "joggers who go round and round and round", or "the gut lord marching". And herein lies the great talent of the band. They're not doing anything that hasn't been done before, but they're doing it with a great degree of wit, and making it relevant for the 1990s.
The album also takes in a great range of styles. From pure pop moments, it takes in more arty, complex songs, as well as even reaching into punk influences, on songs such as Bank Holiday
, which is a chaotic stomp through the idea of a bank holiday weekend, where the narrator is already looking to going back to work. This song also showcases the fact that Graham Coxon is a hugely underrated guitarist by many people, with his skills at devising very catchy riffs, as well as being willing to remain in the background when the time is right, evident at several points on the album. These talents that he possesses make it even more surprising that his solo career has been a comparative failure, but on this album he really does come into his own. Although it sounds as if I'm making this point excessively, it's also important to focus on Damon Albarn's accent at times on this album. Although that's sometimes one of the criticisms of it; that his voice grates after a while, through the whole album he sings in a very British accent, again making it clear that this is a British album, and meaning that he bucks the increasing trend of many singers, in, whether subconsciously or not, slipping into an American accent in their songs. Here though, on songs such as the understated Badhead
, where he sings wistfully of "grinning and bearing it", although everyone can identify with it, there's the undeniable air of British suburbia just lurking under the surface.
If one of the main criticisms of the album is that it hasn't aged well, the other is that it's possibly a bit too long, and for me, that's a more valid approach to criticising the album. Instrumentals such as The Debt Collector
, and songs such as Far Out
, seem still born, and could easily have been left off the album with a more judicious editing process, which would have trimmed the album down a bit, as well as making it more coherent. This also, to a certain extent at least, would mean that the album would have aged better, as recordings of circus music (The Debt Collector
), don't sound brave anymore, so much as tiresome. Something that's important to realise though, is that these songs, although poor compared to the rest of the album, also serve to throw the rest of the songs here into the listener's mind, so you realise quite what Blur are capable of. Some of the songs on this album are generally among the best British pop songs of the 1990s, while others aren't just an acknowledgement of other styles, but are rather Blur definitely showing that they can master many ways of performance.
So, in addition to The Kinks
, and The Small Faces
, both of which I mentioned earlier, what other bands does this follow? Well, something that's been a feature of British alternative pop music for a long time, has been the kind of intelligently amusing lyrics, that can easily be sung along to, but contain sarcasm under the surface, that ranges from mildly ironic to genuinely venomous. While Blur remain near the softer end of this spectrum here, there's no doubting the effect of lyricists such as Morrissey
on the album, and, with the creative axis of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon, they're not really so far away from Morrissey and his hook-writing partner, Johnny Marr
. It's a very English style of music, and one that, while the English don't quite have a trademark on, definitely contains among its best proponents a majority of Englishmen. More importantly, this style shows no signs of dying out. If you listen to this record next to Franz Ferdinand's
debut from earlier this year, there are some definite similarities, in terms of the arty music contained on both albums, but also with heavy irony, such as on the sexually ambiguous song Michael
, by Franz Ferdinand
Two songs that I haven't yet talked about, but which I feel merit it, are Magic America
, and This Is A Low
. The first of these is another classic pop song, in the manner of Girls & Boys
, with the character of Bill Barrett entering American life, with the result that he "bought and ate until he couldn't do either anymore." Poking fun at British parochialism, this provides a perfect summary of some of the main themes of this album, and again shows Albarn's skill at creating such clearly believable characters. This Is A Low
, is simply a masterpiece, with it being another of the softer songs here, with it also being surely the best song ever written about the Radio 4 institution of the indecipherable shipping forecast. Beautifully quiet at the beginning, the chorus sounds as if it's coming from a long way off, and is a very touching moment of the album, as well as showing that while Albarn may not be about to win any prizes for his voice, what he does is very effective, as well as being better than many people give him credit for. The song also features far and away the best guitar solo on the album, as well as one of Graham Coxon’s overall finest. And then, just when you think the song has faded away, it bursts back into life, with the same atmosphere of haunting beauty, which makes it one of the best of the album.
In conclusion, this is an album well worth getting. There's no real overwhelming consensus on what Blur's best album is, although most people would probably say that this isn't it, but I would say that it's one of the most culturally important British albums of the last decade, although it says something about how much British culture has arguably changed, that this already sounds a bit dated. Be that as it may though, it's still both an interesting and entertaining listen, with all sorts of things going on in songs, where you least expect them, such as traffic directions in London Loves
, and the downright strange ending to the album, in Lot 105
. There's the occasional song on here you'll want to skip over, but these are vastly outweighed by the quality music on this album, and, although this isn't a concept album as such, it's definitely worth listening to the whole thing through a few times before you come to a judgement on it, as it tells a clear story, through Damon Albarn's intelligent lyrics, which are also underrated by many people, but which tell the listener a lot about British culture, in the same sort of way as Bruce Springsteen
does in America. Even the album cover here refers to a very British pastime, in greyhound racing, but while this is an album that it probably helps to be British to understand fully, it can easily be appreciated by any music fan, and particularly fans of this genre.
Final Rating: 4.3/5
Girls & Boys
This Is A Low