It is twenty years since Blur’s Parklife was loosed from the traps, an album that is as divisive as it is diverse. It is argued, by some, that its release marked the true starting point for Britpop™ – going against the accepted wisdom that the April 1993 edition of Select magazine, with its cover featuring Suede’s Brett Anderson swaddled in a union flag, is to blame. I recently listened to the album again for the first time in probably fifteen years: what struck me was how time had played tricks on my memory of it.
Often compared to The Kinks, with whom they share a certain studied, peculiarly English, cynicism, what emerges, on revisiting Parklife, is just how much Blur are the sum of their record collections. Parklife is nothing if not a charity shop pick ‘n’ mix of the shifting landscape of youth culture in the years leading up to its release. Sometimes, it wears its influences sewn onto the sleeves of its Parka – like an ironic updating of Pete Townsend’s military surplus chic; sometimes you might have to dig beneath the surface a little – do I detect Scott Walker in The Debt Collector, for example? For better or worse, it marks the beginning of the great convergence of contemporary music-making, where the tongue in cheek Formica staccato of Girls and Boys can rub shoulders with the nervy psychedelia of Drums and Wires era XTC (Tracy Jacks) or the post-punk drill-hammer toolings of Wire (Bank Holiday).
The jaunty Small Faces knees-up of crowd pleasing title track Parklife is something of a red herring, feeling as out of place as does Sloop John B on Pet Sounds. Britpop’s willingness to mash former glories with morning stories – its very own, What if the 60s was the 90s? – is given added frisson by Parklife’s co-opting of actor Phil Daniels: remembered as Jimmy, in the mod revival’s revival of Quadrophenia, it is not easy to give slip to the idea that it is one knowing refraction too many. Of course, I could just be missing the point and, somewhere in its Chas and Dave sing-along chorus is an anthem to urban loneliness to rival Eleanor Rigby.
Parklife is pervaded with the same sense of wistful incomprehension as was previous outing, Modern Life Is Rubbish. At times, it is too, too painful – the acid frazzle of Far Out recalls a post-Floyd Syd Barrett, broken on a wheel. At other times it buzzes with a pogo exuberance (Jubilee). Elsewhere there are artful nods to John Barry (End of a Century) and to Bowie (London Loves) and, God forbid, The Stranglers (Clover Over Dover). What is missing, however, is any sense of who Blur themselves are. Clever bastards, no doubt. (Ian Dury would concur.) On the songs where they do try being themselves, they end up sounding a pale imitation – listen to Magic America, and then dial up For Tomorrow from the second album. It is symptomatic of that criticism, oft levelled at Britpop, that even its best bits sound like the best bits of somebody else. (Elastica, I’m looking at you.) The album all but ends on This Is A Low, a track that refracts the future through a glass darkly. It is a lovely song – a hint of the brittle beauty to follow later on the band’s swansong Think Tank.
At just over 50 minutes, and unlike Britpop, Parklife doesn’t outstay its welcome. Neither does it command your love. However, we have some things to thank it for: it spurred on Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon to produce some of their finest music, and it pretty much side-lined Alex James in the public’s mind as a cheese maker. Blessed are they.