Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Song of the Day: Blur - This Is a Low

It's strange looking back at what happened with British music in America in the mid-'90s. Oasis made it big, but none of their other Britpop contemporaries really crossed the pond. The Verve had a huge hit with "Bittersweet Symphony," but that was arguably only because of its role in Cruel Intentions, and Blur also got to MTV in that same year with "Song 2." But otherwise Blur and The Verve never became well-known bands in the states, and the other two great Britpop bands, Suede and Pulp, never made it here at all. In a sense, Britpop was just that--pop music for Brits, largely about British tradition and daily British life. Americans didn't understand what any of the lyrics spoke about, and Americans definitely don't like things they don't understand. Oasis made it here because they were almost too big not too, and their brand of rock and roll felt too powerful and undeniable for anyone that liked rock stars to look, sound, and act like rock stars. "Bittersweet Symphony" made it in America because it sounded like a classic the first time you heard it, and only felt more timeless in proportion to its becoming more ubiquitous. 

It's a bit difficult to understand why Suede didn't cross the Atlantic, because the guitar sounds on their first album would have fit in perfectly with what MTV was playing in 1992. But with Blur and Pulp, it's really not that mysterious. You can't listen to either band's best work for more than 90 seconds without feeling immersed in Britishness. I guess that's why I didn't really like Blur when I first heard them. 

1994's Parklife was the first Blur album I bought, and I remember getting it in the fall of 2003 when I was first going through a phase where I really felt like I needed to understand the slightly more marginal genres of rock that I hadn't totally supported yet. Britpop certainly applied, as did alt.country (this is when I first got into Uncle Tupelo), trip-hop, and several others. I bought Parklife without hearing anything from it first. It was considered a landmark album of '90s British rock, and that was good enough for me. The first time I put it on, those opening bass/dance-guitar lines of "Girls and Boys" could not have possibly sounded worse to me. It was an issue of expectations (I was assuming something much closer to Oasis), but I really hated them at first. I'm not even sure how many tries it took me to get all the way through the album. But one advantage I have when it comes to listening appreciation is because I'm so fascinated by the way the art forms evolve, I refuse to give up on something without understanding it first. This stubbornness has helped me eventually love a lot of bands I didn't like at first, like Blur, Steely Dan, Los Lobos, Roxy Music, and many others. On the other hand, it doesn't work every time. I listened to Captain Beefheart, Suicide, and The Fall long enough to understand and "get" them, and still know I can't stand listening to them.

Anyway, through repeated listens, I eventually started to like Blur quite a bit, though I still think The Verve, Suede, and Pulp were better. 

Parklife is a grower for many reasons. The first track doesn't really sound like the rest of the album, and a handful of the filler tracks are just bad. The title track makes absolutely no sense to Americans (myself included), nor do a large percentage of the lyrics on the others songs. The guitar sounds like punk power chords filtered through an all-ages video game. I think that's a compliment, but I'm still not totally sure. The bass is mixed so high that it almost turns every song into disco rock. Damon Albarn's vocals just sound soooo British that it's difficult to even think of it as singing until you really get used to it. Maybe you have to take the piss first. 

And yet, somehow all of these become just parts of the endearing whole that is the Blur experience. Though I never spent any time in England in 1994--the closest I got was a two-hour pit stop at Heathrow airport in the summer of 1996--Parklife just sort of feels like it captures a time and a place extremely well. It's an album that sounds like spending an exceedingly normal (and well soundtracked) day in London, for all of the good and bad and in-between that entails. 

One thing that Parklife really has going for it is how it ends, with "This Is a Low." It's what a good day in a great city coming to a close should feel like, when you over-romanticize it like any clueless foreigner would. When I listen to Blur, and particularly to this song, I'm okay with being that clueless foreigner, imagining my sexy alternate life in London. It's that Before Sunrise trope of feeling like you can't go to a great European city without something extraordinary happening, and this song is not just the sound of the end of that extraordinary something, but the sound of actually realizing it's the end, and romanticizing it in real time. 

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