Because Oasis wrote songs reminiscent of “Hey Jude” and “Let It Be,” they went over huge in America. Blur, their chief rivals in the Britpop wars of the mid-‘90s, were more like the Beatles in terms of inventiveness and musical ability, but they didn’t write universal anthems everyone could sing along to. Their finest album, ‘Parklife,’ is all about everyday London life, and when it hit shelves 20 years ago today, on April 25, 1994, America barely took notice.
Perhaps Blur were “too British,” the same criticism hurled at the Kinks, the Jam, Madness, and a host of other terrific U.K. bands that were huge on their side of the pond but relative small fries—er, chips—here. Or maybe it was bad timing, as mastermind Damon Albarn and his nasally British voice proved plenty palatable in the decade that followed, as he achieved massive stateside success with Gorillaz.
But while ‘Parklife’ didn’t necessarily move the American masses, it was a modest underground sensation — the infectious lead single “Girls & Boys” went to no. 4 on the Alternative airplay chart, no. 59 on the Hot 100, no. 21 on Dance Club Songs and no. 40 on the Pop Songs chart. In 2012, the group reunited after several years away and headlined 2013’s Coachella Festival. Whether the band will record new music again is still anyone’s guess. For what it’s worth, Albarn indicated last July that he’d begin working on new Blur material once his solo album dropped, and that day as already arrived.
But even if Blur never records again, ‘Parklife’ remains a masterpiece that continues to offer cheeky little surprises in its nooks and crannies.
“Girls & Boys”: Is that an arched eyebrow Albarn is casting toward decadent club culture? Who can tell? He and the band are rocking dark shades and grooving away like bombed Ibiza kids on this sexy gender-bending disco jam. If they were aiming for mockery, they have plenty of fun in spite of themselves.
“Tracy Jacks”: Albarn is very much a disciple of Ray Davies, and here, he imagines the Kinks’ “Well Respected Man” at the end of his tether, disrobing at the beach and getting busted by the bobbies.
“End of a Century”: Another vivid rocker about the drabness everyday life, “End of the Century” is about waking up in a bug-infested flat, putting on the same clothes all your mates are wearing, and shuffling through a life that’s “nothing special.” At least there’s soft-core porn to look forward to on the telly.
“Parklife”: Way before Blur waxed philosophic about what it means to be a disgruntled young Londoner, the Who tackled the question with “Quadrophenia,” their finest album. It’s perfect, then, that actor Phil Daniels, star of the “Quadrophenia” movie, handles the slang-heavy spoken-word guest vocal. Again, the topics couldn’t be more commonplace—morning traffic jams, feeding the pigeons in the park—but the band makes them pop.
“Bank Holiday”: Blur goes into punk mode for another look at monotony and workaday living. While the notion of slaving away all year for six miserable holidays clearly doesn’t sit right with Albarn, he finds humor in the situation—perhaps even joy. Yeah, it’s back to work on Monday, but “grandma has new dentures” and there’s a six-pack on offer. If this is as good as it gets, it ain’t so bad.
“Badhead”: The malaise continues on this ‘60s-style slice of light psychedelia, though the focus here isn’t on work or housing, but rather an estranged friend or ex-lover. Albarn hasn’t stayed in touch, and he feels bloody awful about it. Not so awful that he’s going to do anything about it, though.
“The Debt Collector”: With the help of a brass section, Blur kicks it “Sgt. Pepper”-style on this instrumental interlude. It’s trippy and trifling—a great lead-in to the next track.
“Far Out”: The organ whirrs like a ghost as Albarn points his kaleidoscope eyes toward the heavens. “Quiet in the sky at night, hot in the milky way,” he sings, doing a kind of quickie version of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe.” Any longer, and it might be annoying.
“To the End”: If they ever make a James Bond movie where 007 loses his job and lands in a go-nowhere relationship with a similarly self-absorbed bird he can only tolerate while drunk, this is the theme song. In another bit of expert casting, Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab adds a dash of class to the sadness with her purring French vocals.
“London Loves”: Even if you’ve got a few quid in your pocket, life pretty much sucks. As the protagonist of this tune tools around in his Japanese car, the whole city is waiting for him to crash and burn.
“Trouble In the Message Centre”: There’s a slightly mechanistic Devo-does-glam-rock feel to the verses, and if that suggests something cosmic or sci-fi, think again: This is yet another rumination on earthly matters. As Albarn sings about being “a manager” and “local delegator,” he sounds like a hotel clerk drunk on power. He’s got the password to the booking database, and it’s gone to his head.
“Clover Over Dover”: Spoiler alert: In the final scene of “Quadrophenia,” the young mod protagonist, Jimmy, drives his scooter off some rather scenic and tall white cliffs. The crew shot at Beachy Head in Brighton, but most people figure it was Dover. Perhaps that’s why Albarn chooses the latter location for this vignette about a young man sad enough to jump and smart enough to realize suicide would only make him a cliché.
“Magic America”: In the same way there are Anglophiles—eastward-looking Americans who suck in their guts to rock Ben Sherman shirts and listen exclusively to bands like Blur—some Englanders see the United States as a modern paradise. Among these wannabe yanks is Bill Barret, the star of this sarcastically peppy song. “Fifty-nine cents gets you a good square meal from the people who know how you feel,” Albarn sings, having a laugh not just at America, but at the idea any could possibly know how you feel.
“Jubilee”: It’s a shame the culture gap kept “Parklife” from taking hold in America. Plenty of bored teenagers with bad skin and worse wardrobes would have related to the main character in this neo-glam anthem.
“This Is a Low”: Inspired by radio shipping forecasts, which the band evidently found soothing, Blur floats off for five minutes of blissful relief. There’s still one more song, but as the final one with words, “This Is a Low” is a funny ending. It’s not exactly hopeful, and what it really seems to be about is learning to go with the flow.
“Lot 105”: Cheesy organ gives way to skanking guitar and finally a shot of herky-jerky punk. Whatever drugs these blokes took on “Girls & Boys” have definitely kicked in.