Parklife (Special Edition)

Parklife (Special Edition)

In the summer of 1993, Blur was making Parklife at Maison Rouge Studios in West London, but the title track was proving to be a struggle. Damon Albarn wasn’t convincing anyone, least of all himself, as the lairy, people-watching narrator. So they gave the actor Phil Daniels a go. Set to Graham Coxon’s spring-loaded guitar and the sound of smashing crockery, Daniels’ rambunctious turn rudely awakened a song that would go on to win the 1995 BRIT Award for Best British Single. To get to the heart of Blur’s third album though, it’s useful to consider Daniels’ other, more implicit appearance. On “Clover Over Dover,” a harpsichord melody leads us to the edge of the White Cliffs of Dover. As Albarn sings, “And when you push me over/Don’t bury me, I’m not worth anything,” it invokes Daniels’ final scenes in his breakthrough film role—as Jimmy, the disillusioned and emotionally rattled mod in 1979 coming-of-age drama Quadrophenia. That’s the duality of Parklife. Once the album lifted Blur from indie underachievers to pop stars, the title track and the jelly-shot-bright Eurodance of lead single “Girls and Boys” became totems for Cool Britannia’s triumphalism and optimism—but this is also the record where Albarn’s melancholic soul really starts to emerge. The character sketches that decorated 1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish are just as witty and caustic here, presenting a white-collar midlife crisis on “Tracy Jacks” and lives being vainly lived for the long weekend on “Bank Holiday.” However, the moments where you sense more of Albarn himself, in the ballads and midtempo turns, are where Parklife’s deepest beauty lies. “End of a Century” turns an infestation he suffered at the London home he shared with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann into one of Blur’s most memorable opening lines (“She says there’s ants in the carpet, dirty little monsters”), while the song’s portrait of a couple settling into domestic ennui in front the television echoed through Albarn’s solo track “The Selfish Giant” 20 years later (“It’s hard to be a lover when the TV’s on/And nothing is in your eyes”). Inspiration for “This Is a Low” and its majestically weary tour of the UK coastline came from listening to the nightly shipping forecast on the BBC’s World Service, a trusted band antidote for hangovers and homesickness, but it’s also tempting to wonder if Albarn is addressing himself in the ambivalence of a line like “This is a low but it won’t hurt you.” As a guest on Savages singer Jehnny Beth’s Apple Music Radio show in 2017, he said, “I’m very neurotic sometimes. I struggle with melancholia but I know how to embellish it with joy.” Parklife’s melodies and humor helped take Britpop into the mainstream but you can already see signs of Blur’s DNA rearranging. Apart from anything, the sheer restlessness of the record suggests they wouldn’t settle amongst the bunting for long. Coxon in particular is brilliantly nimble as they pinball between punk rumbles (“Jubilee,” “Bank Holiday”), gentle psychedelia (“Badhead”), baroque pop (“Clover Over Dover”), New Wave (“London Loves”), and pier-end knees-ups (“Lot 105”). Bassist Alex James’ blithe “Far Out” might have seemed like throwaway stargazing at the time but maybe it was also a wormhole opening into the weightless, expansive experimentation of “Battle” and “Caramel” on 1999’s 13—just as Albarn’s wistful Parklife narratives point towards that album’s broken-hearted confessionals. Listening to Parklife now, you can hear a band coming out of character and into their own.

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