BLUR: PARKLIFE (1994)
1) Girls And Boys; 2) Tracy Jacks; 3) End Of A Century; 4) Parklife; 5) Bank Holiday; 6) Badhead; 7) The Debt Collector; 8) Far Out; 9) To The End; 10) London Loves; 11) Trouble In The Message Centre; 12) Clover Over Dover; 13) Magic America; 14) Jubilee; 15) This Is A Low; 16) Lot 105.
Probably the closest thing to a «definitive Britpop manifesto» to have gone down in history as such — although one wonders just how much that reputation is due to the now-classic image of the two greyhounds on the front sleeve. Speaking strictly in melodic terms, Parklife offers little progress beyond the earlier established style: the band takes most of its structural cues from the Beatles and the Kinks circa 1966-67, slightly bending them to reflect some echoes of the punk and New Wave era, improving upon the production and taking serious care that the lyrics conform to modern, not retro, values. But the good news is that the killer hooks keep coming — and that the band itself thinks that they have something important to say with these hooks.
«Keep it simple, but not stupid» is the now-established motto, and there ain't a single Blur track on which it would work better than on ʽGirls And Boysʼ — probably the definitive Blur song in that it will be impossible to forget it once you've heard it, just once. The nagging two-note synth pattern which completely dominates the song is a perfect sense irritator, as is the robotic chorus (for better effect, all of it should be sung in one breath, which is quite a feat, and in perfect Mockney, without which it would lose much of the effect): part of your brain will tend to dismiss the song as an exercise in idiocy, part of it will bend towards its inherent catchiness, and still another part will perceive the thinly veiled irony, as Blur declare themselves supreme rulers of the hip young crowds of London and send up so many of these crowds' values at the same time, most importantly, the whole concept of sexual freedom in the New Age of Man.
Then the cynicism gets even hotter on the title track, whose melody goes around in simple, steady, repetitive circles, just like the figurative park stroller whose casual life is described by the (mostly spoken, provided by actor Phil Daniels) lyrics — note that not a single phrase or word directly condemns or ridicules «parklife», but Daniels' rather comical, puffed-up attitude, and the song's musical impersonation of «simplistic arrogance» make it hard to perceive ʽParklifeʼ as some sort of positive anthem. Rather, it is one of those «deceitful» songs where you make a chorus so catchy, it is impossible for your stadium audience not to sing it as an anthem: "all the people, so many people, they all go hand in hand through their parklife" — nice words, right? But there is not-so-deeply-hidden contempt here, in that chorus, going all the way back to the jolly old tradition of character assassination by Ray Davies (ʽDedicated Follower Of Fashionʼ, etc.).
This formula — a simple, effective guitar melody based on «toughly-popped» chords, spiced up with some sprinkly electronics and an imminent vocal hook in the chorus, and paired with sarcastic situation-observing lyrics — describes approximately half of the songs on the album; to the two big hit singles above add also ʽTracy Jacksʼ, ʽLondon Lovesʼ, ʽMagic Americaʼ (the latter pokes fun at Americaphilia rather than America itself), ʽJubileeʼ, and even the instrumental ʽDebt Collectorʼ, whose bourgeois-gallant waltzing gets a wholly unusual interpretation when you view it in the context of its title. In each of these songs, behind the «modern English cool» façade there is thoughtful, insightful content — and the musical arrangements are complex enough to prevent the possibility of boredom (keyboards, vocal harmonies, special effects): this is electric guitar-based pop rock, yes, but Blur sell their songs as complete multi-layered packages, not as bare-bones ideas fueled only by sheer enthusiasm and arrogance.
However, the songs that carefully lead Parklife over the threshold that separates «simply cool» records from «great» ones are those that add a slight lyrical touch — most importantly, ʽEnd Of A Centuryʼ, ʽTo The Endʼ, and ʽThis Is A Lowʼ, situated respectively near the beginning, middle, and end of the album and giving it three major «pivots» around which revolves all the snappy coolness. ʽEnd Of A Centuryʼ, in particular, is one of my absolute favorites — the greatest, probably, of all of Blur's «compassionate» songs, an ode to all the bored and lonely people that once again honors the Kinks with its ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ-ish harmonies and melancholic horn solos, and really cuts all the way down to the heart. ʽTo The Endʼ, on the contrary, dips into the influence pool of French pop (the band even involves Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab to sing in her native language), sounding not unlike something out of the soundtrack of Un homme et une femme, although still infected a bit too much with Blur's usual energy.
Finally, ʽThis Is A Lowʼ ends the album on a note that is as far removed from the opening sneer of ʽGirls And Boysʼ as possible — here, Blur plunge into full-scale psychedelic mode, yielding something deep, multi-layered, loud and screechy one moment and soothing the next moment, a song that is more Pink Floyd than Beatles or Kinks; a good example of a situation where «The British» and «The Astral» merge together in one cohesive whole, reminiscent indeed of Syd Barrett, but with its own Nineties' face.
There is no need to religiously adore Parklife or overrate it as the harbinger of the «Britpop revolution» — at its core, it is really very unpretentious, just a humble tribute to the original Britpop, but paid by a bunch of really talented guys who, somehow, while essentially wishing to follow, must have found out, to their own surprise, that they were now in the lead. Which is, really, a pretty damn good situation in terms of creativity, and especially in terms of how well these records stand over time. In 1994, it was unclear whether Parklife would just represent a fad, but twenty years later, it sounds as fun and as fresh as if it were released only yesterday. In fact, I'd bet you anything that at least two or three records like Parklife were probably released yesterday (and the day before yesterday, and the day before that...), because Parklife has not lost its appeal or relevance in the least, and everything that has not lost its appeal or relevance gets cloned on a continuous basis these days, doesn't it? Major thumbs up.