From the Record Crate: Blur – “Parklife” (1994)

blur-parklife

A cultural touchstone of the mid ’90s Britpop movement, Blur’s third album Parklife defined their career and is considered to be their magnum opus. The band became superstars with the album, and maintained a level of critical acclaim with their albums until their hiatus in 2003.

Their debut album, 1991’s Leisure, scored them a major hit single with “There’s No Other Way,” but it has a mixed reputation. For much of the album’s runtime, the band seem to be undecided on whether they want to be a dance-rock act like the Happy Mondays or a shoegazing band like Ride. The band’s modest success with the record was overshadowed by that of their labelmates, Jesus Jones.

However, the band began to find their own sound with the standalone “Popscene” single in early 1992 and their second album, 1993’s Modern Life is Rubbish. On those releases, the band displayed the influences of XTC and The Kinks and began to move towards character sketches, pop hooks and distinctly British lyrical content. On Modern Life songs like “For Tomorrow” and “Advert,” singer Damon Albarn revealed himself as a smart songwriter with a biting wit and an eye for detail.

Released just under a year after Modern Life, Parklife expanded on many of that album’s musical themes. “Girls & Boys,” the album’s opening track and lead single, is a synth-heavy pop number punctuated by Graham Coxon’s staccato guitar stabs. The song’s lyrics contain much of Albarn’s trademark cheeky sarcasm, mocking rich British tourists that use Mediterranean locales like Ibiza and Greece as hedonistic getaways.

Musically, “Girls & Boys” is a satire of the disco-pop often played in European discos. However, its lyrics about pleasure seekers “avoiding all work because there’s none available,” make it difficult to be mistaken for the genuine article.

The other iconic single from the album is its title track, featuring actor Phil Daniels, best known for playing the lead role in the 1979 film Quadrophenia. The verses are an extended monologue by Daniels on the distinct mundanity of British life (the highlight of his day? Feeding birds in the park. Earlier in the verse, he ponders the thought of merely leaving his house!)

For a record usually identified as being optimistic and youthful, many of the tracks on “Parklife” deal with loss or longing. The title character in “Tracy Jacks,” for instance, experiences a nervous breakdown as he nears his midlife crisis. Bill Barrett in “Magic America” has his dream American vacation consumed by food and shopping. “Badhead” is about the slow drifting apart of two people who once meant a lot to each other. “This is a Low” is often cited as the album’s artistic highlight, using a shipping forecast to allude to either drugs, a relationship, or both (or perhaps neither).

“To the End” is a great example of the group’s ability to adapt to different styles of music outside of the British indie comfort zone. Having more to do with French balladry than Anglo guitar pop, the song’s lyrics about the end of a relationship are punctuated by French language responses by Stereolab singer Laetitia Sadier.

Released in April 1994, Parklife was a commercial and critical smash, reaching number one on the UK album charts. At the 1995 Brit Awards, the band recieved four awards, at the time the most ever for a single artist in one night.

The album’s release can be seen as when Britpop entered mainstream popularity in the United Kingdom. The market had begun to shift away from Madchester and American grunge in 1993 with the success of bands like Suede and Manic Street Preachers. By the time Oasis released their debut album in the fall of 1994, the Britpop movement had already begun a reign on top of the charts that would last for several years.

Parklife‘s success in the United States was far more muted. “Girls & Boys” became a minor hit, reaching number 59 on the Billboard Hot 100. Despite missing the top 40, the song remains their highest charting single in the U.S., and also reached the top five of the modern rock chart. However, the album itself failed to place on the Billboard 200 album chart. Blur wouldn’t make commercial inroads in the U.S. until their 1997 self-titled album went Gold off the back of their popular radio hit “Song 2.”

Although Blur moved on sonically from Parklife with their later releases, the album remained a significant influence on later British rock bands. During the mid-2000s, acts like Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party achieved success by emulating some of Blur’s Parklife-era aesthetic.

In the 20 years since its release, Parklife has become an enduring classic of the alternative era, and the band’s massively successful reunion concerts have reaffirmed their place as one of the most important British bands of the last 25 years.

Ryan Gibbs is the music editor for The Young Folks. He is based in Newport, Rhode Island.