Graded on a Curve:
Blur,
Parklife

Today on the Wayback Machine… we return to the Battle of Britpop! In last week’s corner at The Vinyl District: Northern England standard-bearer and contender for the crown, Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?! In today’s corner: Southern England’s pride and glory, Blur’s Parklife!

Let the fight begin!

I should state from the outset that this is a battle involving different weight classes. The heavyweight Mancunians in Oasis opted for the knock out; (What’s the Story) is a slow but methodical series of big, telegraphed hooks to the pleasure center of your brain. Blur, on the other hand, is a lightweight and a dancer, and Parklife comes at you like a flurry of lightning quick blows to the thinking part of your cerebral cortex.

While Oasis opted for monolithic, Blur went the eclectic route; stylistically they’re all over the place. And they’re all over the place for a reason; they’re making a statement on the richness and variety of London itself. Samuel Johnson once said, “If you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,” and Damon Albarn is clearly not tired of London or the multiplicity of genres and influences that have long made it one of the world capitals of rock music.

Unlike Noel Gallagher, who took his cue from Seinfeld and wrote a whole slew of songs about nothing, Blur’s Damon Albarn is a social satirist and details man. From the polymorphous perversity of “Girls and Boys” to the closely observed details of the title track to the working class desperation of the very punk “Bank Holiday” to the industrial dehumanization of “Trouble in the Message Centre,” Albarn is concerned with what it means to be young and English.

Albarn told NME that “Parklife is like a loosely connected concept album involving all these different stories. It’s the travels of the mystical lager-eater, seeing what’s going on in the world and commenting on it.” Oasis gave England’s lager louts anthems; Blur gave them a diagnosis.

You get the cheery (if irony-laden) pop of “Magic America,” the glam-bam anatomization of a feckless young lout that is “Jubilee” (which reminds me of both vintage Mott the Hoople AND some horrible pop tune I can’t quite put my finger on), and the machine-tooled funky and very Berlin Bowie “London Loves,” which sets out to prove that London is one very fickle lover indeed. (Sample lyric: “London loves the way people just fall apart/London loves the way you don’t stand a chance.”)

If there’s one thing Parklife isn’t it’s sunnily optimistic; just listen to the romantic despair of the very Francophile and symphonic “To the End,” in which Albarn (who is joined by Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier and some great guitar wank) sings, “What happened to us?/Soon it will be gone forever/Infatuated only by ourselves/And neither of us can think straight any more.”

Albarn acknowledged the influence of Martin Amis’ dystopian novel London Fields, and the influence is there, although his bleakness pales significantly in comparison to Amis’. The mock anthemic “End of the Century” (which reminds me of Squeeze) may deal with the cheapening of sex but it’s G-rated compared to Amis’ explorations of the same theme, and it doesn’t come close to Jarvis Cocker’s pornographically mechanistic examination of physical love on the Pulp classic “This Is Hardcore.” (Or any other number of Pulp songs for that matter.)

“Badhead” is yet another example of romantic pessimism, but it’s a lovely number and enough to make you swoon. And Albarn’s pessimism gives way to swaggering (if ironic) joy on the yob anthemic title cut; thanks to the gleefully Cockney narration of British actor Phil Daniels, “Parklife” is a staggering victory and as iconically “English” as anything written by Ray Davies. And the LP includes a couple of very off-kilter throwaways, including the very psychedelic “Far Out” and the bizarro waltz “The Debt Collector.”

Declaring a winner in The Battle of Britpop is impossible, of course, for despite the media-driven hype surrounding the competition between the two bands they might as well have been fighting in separate rings. What really mattered was England’s pride in a swelling renaissance in English rock music. Everybody was talking Cool Britannia and what better exemplified Cool Britannia than bands like Oasis and Blur?

For that reason I declare a draw. That said, should either band wish to toss me a load of pound notes, I’ll be glad to throw the baby.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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