Thursday, 4 October 2012

Blur - Parklife

 

Think of one/any British rock band that holds both merit and relevance in the past thirty years of the country's change and development in musical identity, no doubt the list will be long in the context of ranking importance. Regardless of where your allegiance or lack of it may reside, the statistics and the sounds hold one valuable truth: Blur may well find themselves amid the top ten in most vote counts. It's no real revelation to sight Blur as one of the most innovating and spectral of British bands over the two decades they've been active. Away from all the side-projects, personal ambitions and talk of what may or may not be around the corner, the focus on what is and was, stands tallest in any debate on the band. So think then of an album that cemented their status in the lore of both British music and culture alike - regardless of whether it was a continuation or the final record in their discography - for as much its diversifying foray of ideas as much for its relevance to all ends of the social stream of the populous. 'Parklife' is the answer to all such factors - the 1994 album coming at a time when Blur had finally found a way of grabbing the crowd's attention, even if it was, previous, by incorporating influences and brainstorming the ways of both British and American ideology alike.

And while replication was still a theme Blur were keeping a close eye and closer attention to getting right in their sound, the shift was from current artists and their own addition to the musical landscape, but rather a landscape devoid of pretty much any and all musical output. It was the geographic, and indeed, the demographic to the British way of life itself. This is what struck such a precise and timely chord to those comparing what they heard on this record and what had been outputted on the previous two albums. Straight away you're snatched from whatever guesstimate of a musical mind-set you may have envisaged, shoved into the back of a van and sent flailing straight down the A1 in a sort of blurred (pardon the pun) jigsaw of multi-cultured multi-social British life. From the very first cranky keys of 'Girls & Boys', there's already an air of maddening intensity that's neither out-of-control nor outright simple and plausible in being understood. The acid house-like thump of drums, the swirling of bass, Albarn's nasally cockney cries, 'Streets like a jungle/So call the police' and before you know it you're caught amid the back-and-forth binge of euphoria that spell out in repetitions of 'girls who want boys who like boys who pick girls who dig boys like they're girls who dig girls like they're boys'. The sheer see-sawing presents itself as celebratory as much as it is a sort of sincere reflection on youth culture and the chaos that it often brings.

It's an achievement in itself that the band could pull off this sort of house-stylized cocktail of enjoyment without coming off as deluded. But one of the main benefactors in Parklife as an album - as an album of ideas as much as it is an overall analysis - is how quick it is to flick its sound in the complete opposite direction. If the opener is a sort of naive acceptance of the buzz of youthful getting-on's and the joy felt from it, then a track like 'Tracy Jacks' could be deemed the more motivated challenge of accepting the latter years in life. But rather than being indulgently personal, Blur manage to make it come across as exciting in all its meaningful approach of emotion. 'Everyday got closer/He knew in his heart he was over. I'd love to stay here and be normal/But it's just so over-rated.' And the beauty in Albarn's song-writing as a lyricist is the way he (here it comes, again) blurs the border between joyous and melancholic. Graham Coxon only emphasizing the tense directness in the story-telling - washes of electric guitars jaggedly scraping and beating at the humble anxiety of the situation.

But of course, it would be inappropriate to forget that the titular track is what most people recognize and usually come for whenever this album is discussed. And true, who could forget the many great components to a track that is paradoxical in its outright catchiness as much as in its potential overuse of being some kind of proud call to the rest of the World. Whether it's Coxon's grand stampede of guitar strums, Albarn's marching atop the accompanying harmonies or breaking up Phil Daniels' autobiographical ramblings, the track is full to the brim with character - a sort of character that spells attitude and reinstates a sense of joyous creativity about the music. And then you come to the end of the track, the rambling and jolly sing-song of social working-class activity still fluttering in your head when - nestled almost snugly between a pair of surreally dizzying interludes - 'Badhead' hits you like a ton of weighted reality-check labelled bricks. 'It's no surprise that today I'll get up around two/From a lack of anything to do.' All giddy and happy-chappy sing-alongs of previous are gone, kaputt, erased. Instead, you're treated to one of Blur's most heart-wrenching personally beat-up realizations of the more darker and harder-hitting consequences to social life. 'And I might as well just grin and bear it...' Albarn hauntingly sings in his most on-the-sleeve tell-it-as-it-is tones '...because it's not worth the trouble of an argument.' The guitars share the same sign of unavoidable acceptance, strings echoing in a dense stretch of secluded chords and brass work.

If you're still in one piece - and even managing to hold yourself in place likewise - on this journey across the isle of working class joy, ramblings and the occasional acceptance that distraught us more than we'd expect, it would be easy to think of Blur's sound of one figure; one point and one perspective. But with the likes of 'To The End' the perspective begins to expand, branching from the ideals of not one but two at a given time. The track's blossoming of violins and spacious guitars suggest a more romantic idealism, but it's Albarn once more that drags us from out of our fantastical out-of-reach aims and into the present-day occurrence of modern-life complexities. 'Been drinking far too much...and neither of us mean what we say'. But amidst all this, there remains a happy-ending type shine to the tale, despite trying desperately to shrug off the stale and shapeless problem of the past, 'looks like we might have made it' Albarn calls almost surprisingly.

True, this is an album of multiple perspectives, but where the concept of viewpoint and the context of who exactly is taking centre stage in a particular chapter truly makes its case is when the viewpoint is both realist and abstract in equal measure. 'London Loves' is a bumpy road of gravelly guitar plucks and electric strums amidst the bubble of synths and Albarn's calling to the World as if to ask 'what's wrong with this picture?' The picture in question is of a man taken over by a melody while 'coughing tar in his Japanese motor'. The swing of choruses, however, stamping down the moral of this seemingly normal-day occurrence. 'London loves the misery of a speeding heart/London loves the way you just don't stand a chance' - later talking about the act to 'sleep together before today's sold forever'. A track like this built on such simple progression suddenly becomes bombarded by an influx of overly political overly philosophical wonders on such things as class, culture, self-worth and even the materialism we have all found ourselves imprisoned by at some point. Like the very Japanese motor it talks about, the subject matter appears and then disappears in equal speed, leaving only a trailing echo in the shapely dominance of Coxon's plucks and strumming.

It's so attaching to the mind yet mentally draining at the same time, that a track like 'Trouble In The Message Centre' in all its bombastic forays of typical rock hooks becomes in itself a kind of spacious fluster of sound. The only element standing true ground is Albarn's tonal ascent of being 'IN SO MUCH TROOOOOUBLLLE'. But there remains the energy and the know-how to switch this album from outright celebratory ecstasy to downright emotive detailing. The parodying narrative of across-the-pond adventures in 'Magic America' as well as the high-octane closer-to-home 'Jubilee' both share the same ambition in scope of sound as much as they play on Blur's liking of their songs as if characters in their own right. 'This Is A Low' then does what Badhead created and pulled the listener from out the blissful lolly-gagging of external activity and into a more settled down reflection of what's already occurred and how it may/may not play out for one's self. Albarn is at his most interpersonal here - almost at one with the soft strum of acoustics and the claustrophobic buzz of bass making up the lonely backing to such a solitude. It's only at Albarn's calling of the track's title do we catch as close a glimpse to the band's intentional outlaying of discovery and dissection of subject matter, both the bright and the bleak in equal measure.

An album such as this brings to question - rightfully so - as to what may be considered the pinnacle or outright limit of conceptual exploration, and all the experimental jamming of music that brings with it. No doubt this is an album with a journey - a fixed route filled with many a sight and many more a story or two behind them - that takes us right to the heart of mid-90's British solidarity, and unease at the same time. But its deliverance is neither bloated with emphatic criticism nor is it a sort of satirical mockery of one's patriotism to their country. They live their entity-less lives and the focus is shifted to the next construct for us to observe, as if behind some kind of glass wall. But the observance, as stated, isn't critical or humorous. It's a collection of snap-shots and a motion of action at the same time. 'Parklife' is like the family photo album and Blur are the compilers of such imagery. In the following year, Blur would go on to make - what some would say - a somewhat-rushed follow-up, scoop four gongs at the annual BRIT awards and inevitably spark one of the most-hyped rivalries in British music. But beyond all the merits, the accolades, and yes even the backlash by fans of certain allegiances, 1994 was the year Blur represented a sound that was as much about being amidst the chaos of modern life as it was a step-back from all that madness; an evaluation of everything that could be expressed, and inevitably would be expressed about the very Britain we call (and still call) great.
~Jordan

9.7

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