Blur’s third album Parklife was one of the best and most defining albums of the emerging Britpop scene when released in 1994. Spawning four hit singles in the U.K., it was also the first of five #1 albums there and was their breakthrough release in America.
Stephen Street, who produced the band’s hit 1991 pop rocker “There’s No Other Way” and most of the previous (second) album Modern Life Is Rubbish, was back in the fold for this record, and he oversaw Frank Arkwright’s remastering of it for this year’s reissue. (He is also legendary for producing records by The Smiths and Morrissey in the ’80s, The Cranberries in the ’90s, and the Kaiser Chiefs in the ’00s, among other acclaimed European rock bands.)
The record’s most notable and commercially successful track and music video, “Girls & Boys” was then, as it is now, truly inventive, with an ultra cool mix of funky disco-esque beats and bass lines, and psychedelic elements that are perfect for dance clubs and parties. The highlight of this track for this reviewer has always been Graham Coxon’s electric guitar parts, which crash the disco party with a vengeance during the verses, using short, dirty, distorted and palm-muted riffs, which at times contain awesome high-action flange effects. The remastered version amps up even the most subtle of Coxon’s guitar riffs, right down to the very end near the song’s fade out.
About six of these songs are very familiar to these ears based on radio airplay and previous Blur compilations. But having not heard the album in its entirety until this year, it was hard to fully appreciate the genius and diversity that Coxon, singer/keyboardist Damon Albarn, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree brought to it. From the raw British punk rock of “Bank Holiday” to the softer but steady and jangly following track “Badhead” and circus music-like “The Debt Collector,” it’s an adventure of an album. Other standouts, like “This Is a Low,” with Albarn’s arena-sized vocals and the band’s organ and acoustic-based approach, isn’t too dissimilar to what fellow Brits Radiohead was doing around the same time period (the mid-’90s).
At 16 tracks long, Blur clearly had a ton of musical tastes to fit into one album. After getting through it, the experience left this reviewer actually wanting to hear more. The spacey acoustic track “Far Out,” for example, features James on lead vocals, but at 1:38 in length, it is just too short. More high energy punk rock like “Bank Holiday” would’ve been welcomed too. A sax-aided rocker like the lazy teen-bashing rock of “Jubilee” and punk-ish “Trouble in the Message Centre” are aggressive in their own right, however, though the low-key vocals by Albarn on the latter track don’t quite match the energy of the music, thereby keeping it from being a true standout.
For fans who do crave more from this era of the band, this new edition of Parklife does indeed come with more music. In fact, a second CD of 16 songs is included, and contains b-sides collected from the band’s four hit singles, “G&B,” “End of a Century,” “Parklife,” and “To the End,” as well as some acoustic performances of songs from the album. The package also comes with new artwork postcards, an expanded booklet with new photos and liner notes that contain a new interview with the band about the album’s legacy.
The live full band acoustic versions of the title track and “Jubilee” from a BBC session in 1994 are well played, but the acoustic guitars are a little hidden in the mix. Perhaps the most surprising among these b-sides, however, is the fun, jazz-rock of “Beard.” And Coxon shows his sense of humor on the country-mocking number “Red Necks.” Most of the rest of these b-sides and alternate versions aren’t essential listening, but definitely show that they belong where they ended up.
Eighteen years after it took the world by storm, Blur’s Parklife is still the lively, creative genius of an album now that it was then and should be an essential piece of your Blur collection, or for any fan of the Britpop movement of the ’90s. This remastered “Special Edition” 2-CD edition is available now and should satisfy any major fan of the band.