Review Summary: For Tomorrow: A Guide to Contemporary British Music, 1988-2013 (Part 8)
Three months after the release of Modern Life is Rubbish
, Blur headlined Reading Festival’s Sunday tent. With their only competition being the increasingly insufferable The The, the crowd for Blur ended up being bigger than expected. Blur had an unfortunate run of botching major gigs in those days, their disastrous performance at the Town and Country Club in Kentish Town almost got them dropped from their label, but the lads came through this time, delivering a performance of startling confidence from a band coming into its own. Damon later called it “A good days work”; David Rowntree remarked it was an “Hour and a half long orgasm”.
Reading Festival was the turning point. British pop music, thanks to changes in Radio One’s staff, had begun to embrace the indie set. Damon had his swagger back, making bigheaded remarks to the press like “I think we are the best British group since The Smiths.” While Modern Life is Rubbish
was only a modest success, its quality is what really galvanized the band. It was a success on their terms, it flew in the face of current trends and record label requests and earned Blur a cult following. “That was really the birth of us turning into the kind of modern Blur,” reflected Rowntree. As the mainstream caught up to it in the brief year following Modern Life
’s release, Blur were ready to take over with the release of their absolute masterstroke, the Britpop defining Parklife
is a collection of nigh-on perfect music, expansive and adventurous yet all revolving around the very British idea that intense sadness is no reason not to make it to work in the morning. It overhauled the sensibilities of The Kink’s 1968 The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society
for the post-Thatcher era and crashed the 1995 Brit Awards, winning best album, band, single, and video, a record. They treated the award ceremony like a playground, particularly uproarious was, after Prince showed up with the word “Slave” written on his cheek in defiance of the record industry Dave Rowntree snatched an eye pencil and wrote “Dave” on his.
has a reputation in critical circles as an album that’s all patriotic on the surface and all sadness inside. While there is certainly some truth to this, that’s selling the album a little short. After all, isn’t the most compelling patriotism honest patriotism? Damon Albarn may not be running around like the town crier declaring “ALL IS WELL” but that doesn’t mean he loves his country any less. If anything, much of Parklife
testifies to British resilience in the face of misery. When Parklife
dips into beautiful balladry, Albarn’s character studies illustrate depression without drama. People who have off days, breakups, contemplate death and the futility of it all but, like most of us, get along with their lives.
”So far/I’ve not really stayed in touch”
Yet, unlike any other album that rests in my personal top 10, this is a very difficult record to connect to emotionally. It’s easy to appreciate for everything it does so well but to feel like it has a genuine stake somewhere in your life as a complete album
is tricky. The album plays too distant with feeling to really ground itself.
I used to think this was the album’s sole flaw until I realized that’s the whole point. Parklife
is, at its lowest, an album about despondency and numbness. A world where the end of a relationship is communicated as “It looks like we might have made it to the end” in the same way one might say, “It looks like it might rain tomorrow.” The sad sack protagonist of “Badhead” wakes up around 2 just so he can “Get a touch of flu”. On the masterful “End of a Century” the excitement around the new millennium is dismissed as “Nothing special”. Parklife
zeroes in on these characters at an intensely micro level, examining the very relatable and very human struggles at their core. The sadness on this album is comfortable, something to sink into for a while and come ripping out of again.
”Following the heard/Down to Greece/On holiday!”
And rip it does. Blur are at an all time pop music peak here, taking the catchiest melodies and twisting them through their singular vision of what popular music should be. Opener “Girls & Boys” is one of Britpop’s defining singles and an incredible achievement for how close it comes to being grating. Damon sings in a flat cockney accent so thick it borders on parody. It stands in direct contrast to the bands ecstatic disco bounce behind him. “Tracy Jacks” – One of Blur’s most underrated songs - repurposes the mid-life crisis as a joyous rebellion against malaise as its titular protagonist heads out at 5 in the morning, strips naked, runs around town, and, finally, bulldozes his own house, “saying its just so overrated”. “Parklife” sports possibly the best use of spoken word in pop music history as Phil Daniels shares laddish wisdom while Blur refashion day to day living as an ecstatic pogo hop. “Bank Holiday” makes vacation sound more stressful than just going to work and “Jubilee”s quiet inside life is either loneliness or contentment but no matter what his dad is giving him the boot.
All of this is laced with Grahm Coxon’s spindly guitar lines and constantly unique solos, evoking a backfiring car on “London Loves”. Alex James’ pitch perfect basslines buoy the whole of the record, contributing subtle hooks that underscore the melodies.
Producer Stephen Street’s contributions are as vital to the album as any official Blur member, giving each instrument the exact amount of separation and space. The crispness of his production lends each band member a remarkable amount of room to work while his other touches, the harpsichord on “Clover Over Dover” or the synth solo on “Magic America”, are perfectly complementary. Also of worthy note, American producer Stephen Hague produces “To the End” and lends it the French noir atmosphere it demands.
It all comes down to the grand finale, “This Is A Low”. After 14 tracks of intensly micro focused music “This Is A Low” blows the album into macro, wrapping its arms around Jubilee, Tracy Jacks, the habitual voyeurs, the debt collector, the girls & boys ***ing like rabbits on holiday, all of England and just holding tight. With its echo laden snare shot and Grahm Coxon’s epic guitar solo seeing it off, it seals Parklife
as more than just a collection of great songs but a true album lover’s album
, one that became a huge commercial success and put Britpop on the map as a full force movement.
But because ending with the epic weepy ballad is so cliché, it ends with the “Technical Difficulties” keyboards and chippy la la la’s of “Lot 105”. How cheeky.
Next: “Please, could you stay a while to share my grief?”