It’s important to recognize that while Parklife might not be the best Britpop record available due to its general inconsistency (although that criticism can be used on any Blur record), it certainly is the most definitive of the genre. It’s important to recognize that Parklife is not simply a collection of songs, it’s an album that took a very literal meaning of the term “Britpop” by making an album that plays like a social commentary of what was happening in British life at the time. This is the record that propelled Blur as one of Britain’s biggest bands, perhaps because their listeners could relate to the characters that they sang about, made even better because each of those songs were loaded with pop-sensible hooks and danceability. That isn’t to say non-English listeners can’t enjoy Parklife, although a common criticism is the overwhelming, unashamedly British accent from Mr. Albarn (I don’t recall hearing it as pronounced as the chorus of “Girls & Boys”), or the more extreme example of actor Phil Daniels’s Cockney accent on “Parklife.”
It’s important to note that on Parklife, the band is mostly a Damon Albarn affair. Guitarist Graham Coxon, while definitely important to the band’s integrity, is much more comfortable on the background here, whose prominence as a principle member won’t show until 1997, where he convinced Albarn to leave the Britpop slump, coincidentally, the same year he began songwriting. Alex James contributes a single track here, the regrettably iinconsequential, but short and sweet “Far Out,” and other than two guest vocalists, the main voice we hear throughout Parklife is Damon Albarn’s. Note that I’m not suggesting that Albarn could’ve have pulled off Parklife by himself, Blur is extremely tight as a unit here. For example, “Girls & Boys” might be nowhere without one of James’s best basslines.
Many of the best tracks on here make great use of Albarn’s ability of singing a great hook. While it doesn’t really require any further reading; the new wave-influenced “Girls & Boys” really belongs on the dancefloor and one could write off Albarn’s chorus as completely unintelligent, but there’s something to be said about the sexual confusion of the hard-to-follow chorus, but Albarn clears it all up, “Always should be someone you really love,” as if none of it (gender) matters. Another criticism of Parklife might be that it hasn’t aged well (it’s hard to tell if any Britpop record can stand the test of time), but the lyrics of “Girls & Boys” are still applicable in the world today. They simply don’t matter in the grand scheme of the song, thanks to the undeniable hook of the chorus, but the band provides a solution to unemployment (”Avoiding all the work / because there’s none available”) — dancing your troubles away, while “Love in the 90’s / Is paranoid,” a more restrictive (and again, still applicable) is explored later in the album.
With “Magic America” and “Tracy Jacks,” Albarn employs relatable fictional characters. The former is a humouristicly satirical of an overly idealistic view of America and the American dream (the line “Everyone is very friendly” might be the best example of this). Unfortunately, “Magic America” suffers from a too-casual delivery of the verse, which works (as seen on “Girls & Boys”), but it simply doesn’t have a grabby enough chorus to pull it off, excepting the “La la la la.” “Tracy Jacks” on the other hand works better, with the same socio-commentary verse setup as “Magic America,” but a chorus in the same vein as “Girls & Boys.” “Tracy Jacks” tells the story of a normal 9-5 worker, “Tracy Jacks, works in civil service / Tracy Jacks, it’s steady employment” who eventually goes insane, “Tracy Jacks bulldozed down the house he lived in / Saying it’s just so overrated.”
Meanwhile, “End of the Century” is perhaps the obvious pick for a social commentary. There are numerous references to how television media slowly becoming integral to our culture, from “Good morning TV” and “Good night TV,” almost as if TV became a full-fledged family member to “Sex on the TV / Everybody’s at it / The mind gets dirty.” Then there’s the entirety of the chorus, “We all say / Don’t want to be alone / We wear the same clothes / Because we feel the same / We kiss with dry lips / When we say goodnight.” In comparison with its preceding tracks, the chorus never overpowers the verse, even with its pleasant backing vocals. Listen to how Albarn pronounces “End of the century, oh, it’s nothing special” almost as if he’s saying “Another century of, it’s nothing special” (it’s what I hear, anyway). Or listen to how Albarn’s sweetly delivered bridge, “Can you eat her, yes you can.” Sex–everybody’s at it, indeed, but Blur isn’t offering any solutions, just observations.
I could continue on the social commentary aspect of the album, but it’s important to note that even the shorter tracks on the album, especially “Bank Holiday,” with its chorused “Bank holiday comes with a six-pack of beer / Then it’s back to work A G A I N,” continue the theme, so they’re all integral to the album’s identity, regardless of being inconsequential otherwise. It’s also important to note that the album’s instrumentation gives it a pseudo-concept, I can’t listen to “To the End” without attributing its chamber pop instruments, especially its bridge at the 2:28 mark, to that of a park, nor can I hear instrumental “The Debt Collector” or closer “Lot 105” without seeing how it all relates to parklife. The title track, featuring actor Phil Daniels, is the epitome of the album’s social commentary views, “Who’s that gut lord marching? You should cut down on your pork life mate, get some exercise!” and “I put my trousers on, have a cup of tea / and I think about leaving the house.”
While the opening half of the album is undoubtably strong, I can’t say the same for its second half. The already discussed “Magic America” simply doesn’t hold up without a grandiose chorus that “Girls & Boys” and “Tracy Jacks” have, although it’s largely saying the same thing. That being said, the second half contains two of Blur’s best ballads. “To the End” has the second guest feature on the album, Laetita Sadier (of Stereolab), singing French mantras behind Damon Albarn’s vocals to great effect. “To the End” continues the theme of weakening love that’s first seen on “Girls & Boys,” “We’ve been drinking far too much” and “Soon it will be gone forever / Infatuated only with ourselves / And neither of us can think straight anymore,” makes Albarn’s chorus “Looks like we’ve made it to the end” bittersweet. Also look at how Albarn decided to switch “Fell in love” with “Collapsed in love.” A better replacement, if there ever was one.
Of course, penultimate track “This Is A Low,” as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, immediately ranks as one of Blur’s best ballads. It begins as a standard ballad, with some more intricate work from Graham Coxon (listen to the subtle slide of the opening measures or the use of feedback of the final chorus), but it has the most undeniable chorus (in an album that has no shortage of those) that launches it into realms of anthemic (it’s almost weird to hear a crowd of people shouting “THIS IS A LOWWWWW!” but they did and they still do). “This is a low,” Albarn shouts gloriously, as if accepting the world around him. Again, observations without solutions. It’s almost fitting that “Lot 105” comes around and stops us from sinking into the inevitable depression of that reality.
Oh, and the Kinks.