Before their debut had even been released, Blur vocalist Damon Albarn announced to journalists that after their third album was released they would be the quintessential English band of the 90s and he intended to write it in 1994.
It ended up being written a year earlier, but he was right.
Having changed direction after a disastrous US tour that left them homesick, in debt and in danger of being dropped from their label, and having solidified their new Britpop sound with the angrier and rougher Modern Life is Rubbish, Blur’s third album is sharper, stronger and catchier in nearly all ways compared to its predecessor.
Despite not sounding like anything that follows it, the synthpop-influenced ode to holiday resort debauchery Girls and Boys starts things on a high, putting the focus on Alex James’s nimble and relentlessly funky bassline before introducing the two biggest parts of the band’s sound throughout the album; Albarn’s heavily accented and cheeky vocals and Graham Coxon’s guitar work which alternates between hard-hitting chords and gliding, shoegazey tremolo throughout the song, eventually letting loose with one of the twistiest and queerest choruses to ever hit British radio – “girls who are boys who like boys to be girls who do boys like they’re girls who do girls like they’re boys…always should be someone you really love!” Switching styles completely, Tracy Jacks arguably sums up the sound of the album (and Britpop in general) with a modern take on ’60s guitar-led pop, lacing swirling string sections through the sunny and hugely catchy verses while telling the story of a middle-aged civil servant who goes off the rails spectacularly – and then it changes again with the huge yet compact End of a Century, which manages to distill almost the entire album into its two-and-a-half minute runtime with acoustic guitars, a flugelhorn solo and a stomping chorus. The harmonies in particular are on point here, gorgeously layered and going between falsetto sighs and swooping runs smoothly without overpowering the rest of the song. Parklife is the lyrical heart of the album, solidifying itself as the band’s signature song in their home country – featuring Quadrophenia star Paul Daniels delivering spoken-word verses about day-to-day life in London in his natural (and very strong) Cockney accent, a honking saxophone doubling up with the bass and undercutting the simple but iconic guitar riff before ending with a massive-sounding and triumphant chorus that gets bigger every time it appears – all of which come together in a shamelessly British blast of pop-rock. Bringing the tempo up hard afterwards is Bank Holiday, a short, messy and exhausting blast of punk that packs a whole album’s worth of controlled chaos into under two minutes, with overlapping vocals and a ferocious rhythm section which is given its power by drummer Dave Rowntree – who up to this point has been mostly restrained – going all out, launching into explosive rolls and fills with wild abandon as the song crashes into the chorus. Simplistic and pretty but not doing much with itself Badhead is one of the most introverted moments on the album, Albarn’s trademark cheekiness fading away into a much softer and more vulnerable tone of voice as the alt-rock side of Blur comes through for a while.
The second half of the album, despite staying just as lyrically sharp, is where it loses its way in places – beginning with a weird but thankfully short Pink Floyd parody along with putting the misfiring Trouble in the Message Centre with the suicide-with-a-smile Clover Over Dover together later on, Parklife quickly rights itself after both disruptions before they can impact the flow of the album too badly; the first of which being To the End, a heartbreaking ballad that does away with the Blur sound entirely in favour of a cinematic, lush production revolving around an orchestral accompaniment, quietly booming drums and enigmatic vocals in French from Stereolab’s Lætitia Sadier, and a chorus with so much power that the emotion in Albarn’s voice almost becomes an instrument of its own. The bridge provides a brief moment of lightness, reintroducing the fairground organ from before to tie the song back in with the rest of the album before the chorus returns to set it free again. Going from lightly sarcastic and bittersweet to coldly honest, London Loves is the darkest song on the album in spite of its quirky, 80s-throwback instrumental, framing stark lyrics about prostitution around an ironically catchy chorus that declares “London loves…the way people just fall apart”. Magic America, while not being as harsh as their previous takes on the country – rebelling against Americanisation was one of the main themes of their previous album – also isn’t as sharp as them, putting most of their effort into the undeniably sticky chorus and leaving several weak verses in its wake. Jubilee is one big tribute to glam rock and the shot of energy the album needs after the last three songs, combining driving piano and drums with a hard-hitting chorus and a bridge full of noises from retro games, giving the otherwise fully 70s song a modern spin that sets it apart. Drastically unlike the rest of the album, even taking To the End into consideration, the epic closer This Is a Low is the thematic opposite to London Loves – a dark and moody instrumental with lyrics which are largely about the Shipping Forecast, an inexplicably popular British institution, along with several ambiguous lines about the country itself (“into the sea goes pretty England and me” and “the Queen’s gone round the bend, jumped off Land’s End”) – and sounding as though it had travelled back in time from one of their post-Britpop albums. Building from quiet and delicate verses to a huge, soaring chorus and back down again until the guitar solo arrives, the result of three separate ones layered until it sounds as though it’s tearing through the song itself to be heard in a swirling, colossal wave of sound, the song transcends the album – but despite this perfect ending the album continues with the surreal ska romp Lot 105, turning the mood and atmosphere entirely on its head as it goes from a cheesy organ riff to double-time football chants in the space of a minute before finally ending with the musical equivalent of slamming the door shut on the listener.
Despite strong competition from rival bands at the time – the established Suede, the newly signed Oasis, the up-and-coming Pulp – Parklife remains as one of the best albums to come out of the Britpop era and the one that sums up the genre best; fun, hard-hitting and a shameless love letter to the music that came before it.
“I’d love to stay here and be normal…but it’s just so overrated!”
Genres… Britpop, alternative rock, pop-rock
Best tracks… Girls and Boys, Tracy Jacks, Parklife, Bank Holiday, To the End, Jubilee, This Is a Low