Blur, ‘Parklive’ – Album Review
While Olympic Stadium was parading out the eye-aching, ear-upsetting, mawkish hullabaloo of a closing ceremony — titled, kind of annoyingly, ‘A Symphony of British Music’ — miles away, 80,000 people jammed themselves into London’s Hyde Park for the ‘Best of the British‘ concert.
The official counterpart to the garish, pop culture panem et circenses ‘Symphony,’ the Hyde Park lineup laid out an abridged history of 35 years of stellar British rock: The Specials represented Britain’s second-wave ska phase, New Order brought synthy post-punk and Bombay Bicycle Club was chosen as the shaggy ambassador for contemporary NME darlings.
And while a traditional British marching band in full regalia summoned a strict, brass invocation of the iconic ‘Parklife’ under Bearskin hats — cheeky! – the four members of Blur were at Hyde Park, minutes away from headlining the day with what is all but confirmed to be the momentus final show for the Britpop greats.
So often — and more often than not, without even intending to — live music events can go down in history as being the most explicit way to understand the social and cultural climates of a given time. James Brown’s concert at the Boston Garden hours after the MLK Assassination. Queen‘s 1986 concert at Wembley. The Zaire ’74 Music Festival.
And in that vein, you don’t have to live under the Queen’s purview to recognize that the night’s juxtapositions speak deafeningly loud about class structure, generational conflict, Western decadence, the capitalization of music, and, heck, just the shaky state of British pop. (The Who is great, but Roger Daltrey croaking up ‘My Generation’ in 2012 is dog crap and you know it.)
So when Blur hit the stage and lit into ‘Girls and Boys,’ that synthy ode to androgyny, the song’s allusions to vacations in Greece and the line “avoiding all work / ’cause there’s none available” took on a special, mutated sneer 18 years after its release. (By comparison, ‘My Generation’ is 47 years old and just shouldn’t be sung by anyone more than half its age.)
Keeping the set list cued into tracks from ‘Parklife,’ the band sent out musical solidarity to the crowd with ‘London Loves,’ miked up the cowbell and saluted the archetypical kitchen-sink everybloke with ‘Tracy Jacks,’ and perhaps threw a sly barb at the cross-city forced jubilance with ‘Jubilee.’
Damon Albarn’s smog-weary voice stays in full effect throughout the rest of Blur’s two-hour set. Like so many of his great, fellow countrymen vocalists, Albarn has always favored that patently British school of using his rocker’s throat to dirty up his innate crooning melodies, gliding to each end of the register and dirtying up each note along the way. It’s a sound that he’s aged into admirably at the end of the band’s 24-year history.
Likewise, you can hear Graham Coxon — the ever-embattled Dave Davies to Albarn’s Ray — relishing every last guitar attack. In ‘This Is a Low,’ he takes the forefront to rip into a soaring, fuzzed-out and dang-near majestic solo played in the way only someone playing a song for the last time can play it.
For all the allusions to the ’90s intrinsically involved in any Blur show, the ‘Parklive’ concert remains in the now. And not just because they released the album hours after it was recorded. The band sends out thoughts to Syria before inviting Khyam Allami, a young, Syran oud player, to the stage for a wobbly take on ‘Out of Time’ (the set’s only inclusion from the Coxon-free ‘Think Tank’). And Albarn also shouts out Olympic hero Mo Farah before diving into ‘Song 2,’ the most ’90s song ever.
While the band’s baggy, pogo-ing megahits are in full effect throughout the night (‘Beetlebum,’ ‘Coffee and TV,’ ‘Country House’), the ‘Parklive’ set list takes a sharp but fitting turn for the melancholic toward the end.
Most jarring is the performance of ‘Under the Westway,’ the band’s most recent single, which Albarn explains was written in February about and in anticipation for the night’s Hyde Park gig. It’s a song unstuck in time, performed with a unapologetic vulnerability, and nakedly anticipating a future nostalgia for the band.
But when Blur noodles their way into their traditional closer, ‘The Universal,’ you can hear Albarn squinting back tears before admitting, “I really don’t know what to say.” This song is already engineered for maximum goosebumps as is. But with 80,000 voices ushering Albarn and Co. out of a commercially, critically and culturally essential 24-year career by singing the chorus as one appreciative mass, it becomes apparent by song’s end that the microphones in Hyde Park captured an essential recording.
See, in less than five minutes, the recording of Blur’s final transmission effortlessly illustrates the special role that British music plays in British culture with more power, more emotional resonance and more unforced relevance than the spectacle across town ever could. Leave it to Blur to bring it into focus.