In a dusty box somewhere lies your past. No, I don’t mean a coffin, you weirdo – I mean photos.
Everyone has photos of their past somewhere. Sometimes they’re fond memories, and sometimes they’re pretty embarrassing too. Usually there’s a combination of these two that help you create your own slice of the universe, gripped in your hand, faded but still strong as ever.
Likewise, if you asked Blur for a photograph of England in 1994, they would have handed you a copy of Parklife. And like the smart-assed cheeky songwriters that they are, they aren’t always so nice about it.
Let’s be clear here: the front cover is not the memory you would expect from a “photographic” album. It’s a picture of dog racing, and along with the picture comes a slew of circumstances:
Horse racing has been practiced for several millenia. Though it’s instantly associated with gambling, it is still an activity with much prestige and legend surrounding it. Dog racing, on the other hand, is an invention of the last 100 years or so.
Horse racing features a human and a horse working together (though one is in control of the other) towards a common finish and joint fame. In dog racing, the caretaker sits on the sideline and counts on the dog to chases what it believes to be a real hare – fooling the dog’s natural instincts for a profit.
This is a picture of modern times striving to reach the greatness of history. Parklife‘s vision of 1994 England isn’t that far off from this image. Here we see two dogs, muzzled, marked, and snarling, toward a futile goal (the mechanical hare) that reaches towards someone else’s even more futile goal (living up to the historical glories of both Europe and America).
Because this is a piece of aural realism, there are slices of all sorts of music present on the record from music hall to psychedelic to new wave disco. There’s even a punk-tinged track that (in proper fashion) clocks in well under 2 minutes. But because of how varied every aspect of this album is, I found it extremely hard to choose just two sample tracks. So I just picked three. I’m sure you don’t mind.
The first track is one you’ve undeniably heard before if you listened to whatever “modern rock-lite” radio station existed in your area in the mid-to-late-90s. Blur being Blur, this track follows suit with some of their other big hits (e.g. – “Song 2“) by its “complete package” irony. In fact, the whole stunt is pulled off so well that I wasn’t even aware that this was a Blur track until much later in the game – they managed to absorb the British club culture so well, I was sure it was something by some other now-washed-up new wave band from back in their prime. And though the lyrical content is very much important (highlighting the band’s opinion on the complicated nature of ambiguous sexuality), I find the feel of the song and its position as lead track to be very interesting, especially in light of the front cover’s statement.
The second track is a little different from the more popular cuts on this album. It takes a leisurely stroll through the world of Britain in the presence of the French New Wave. Whispers of smoky French echo in the background while strings sound off. The image is one of soft focus and monochromatic sharpness. The only thing that seems out of place is Albarn’s British accented lead vocal, but this also keeps the album’s idea in focus – this is an era being reached out to from a place and a time completely out of reach.
The third track, though a bit less famous than “Girls & Boys”, is just as effective a satire, even if not as immediately gratifying. (That chorus is damn catchy, though.) It’s Cockney rap, with Damon Albarn as the hype man. The lead lines are spoken by Phil Daniels, who was made famous for his lead role in Quadrophenia. It’s a man from the working class, commenting in his own vernacular on everything that makes his everyday life what it is. There’s poor John’s “brewer’s droop“, a “marching gutlord” and his “porklife”, and an assault on Audi’s bourgeois tagline “Vorsprung durch Technik“. This is the culmination of the album as a slice of life, mixing Cockney-flavored one-liners and seething ridicule of the surrounding culture. It’s this track that drops us right into the scene.
Overall, the album art works as an allusion to many things 1994′s UK both was and wasn’t. In that respect, the cover concept is a success, supplying a clever abstraction to an interesting contrast – “what we are” and “what we wish we were”.
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)