ROCK / Blurry shades of Sgt Pepper

AT ABOUT seven o'clock this evening, if the midweek sales pointers are correct, Blur's third album Parklife will enter the chart at No 1, outselling Pink Floyd's The Division Bell by a country mile. It will have been a long time since the top spot has been attained by a record of such wit, intelligence and fun.

Blur's hits of 1991 showed a band with a promising psychedelic style. It was the subsequent tours of America that cemented their obsession with English pop. Depressed by mall culture, unimpressed by grunge, Blur's singer-songwriter Damon Albarn fell in love with the timeless music of the Kinks and vowed that Blur would be the quintessential English group of their era.

But whereas Ray Davies wrote gentle satires and send- ups, Blur's instinct was to put the boot in. Their second album, Modern Life is Rubbish, which arrived in 1993, was a brash, unashamedly funny record. It wore its Kinks influences with some pride: characters popped up, washed the car, went for walks in Primrose Hill and desperately tried to avoid the horrors of the nine o'clock news. But the tone was possibly too biting. Albarn's affected cockney voice stripped the characters of what little dignity they had. If Parklife had been Modern Life Is Rubbish II - a few new characters, a change of street name here and there - Blur would have been set fair for a profitable career as a kind of malevolent Madness. But Parklife looks far beyond that. Its view of England is curdled, for sure, but expressed in probably the most diverse set of pop songs since Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And as with Sgt Pepper, it's easy to lose yourself in Parklife's world.

There is a sort of concept to the album. Parklife is delivered in ingenious fashion: as a day in the life of the English and their radio stations. The songs contain speech, jokes, references to the weather, traffic news, even a shipping forecast. Britain's coastline appears several times as a forbidding cut- off point, just as it did in The Who's Quadrophenia.

Set in this wider context, the music leaps from style to style to give the impression of a radio playlist. Parklife channel- hops from pop to punk to disco; from the elegant to the vulgar to the plastic - all these elements seizing their three minutes inside the greater vision of a nation governed by its fast-forward button. Albarn has called the album 'radioscopic'. Put simply, it means that Parklife is much more than a bunch of songs. Even 'Girls & Boys', a fairly cheesy hit single, makes an important contribution. As a musical throwback to the Duran Duran era, it earns its place on the playlist.

No song is like another. 'To the End' is a lush ballad reminiscent of the Bond theme 'You Only Live Twice', sung in English and in French. 'Jubilee' is glam rock. 'London Loves' is clattery and synth-led, very mid-Eighties. 'End of a Century', about a shell-suit family in the suburbs, has one of the warmest trumpet melodies since 'Penny Lane'. 'Bank Holiday' is a 90-second yobbo version of the conga. 'The Debt Collector' is a queasy brass band instrumental that could conceivably turn up on Alan Dell's show on Radio 2. The title track, narrated enthusiastically by the actor Phil Daniels, is an account of an unemployed lad's day, made semi-heroic by the irrepressible urchin backing music. And so on.

To do all this, you must have excellent musicians. Blur do. The guitarist, Graham Coxon, dominates the album with a stylistic range rarely attempted on a British pop record, while Albarn, on keyboards, can make an organ beautiful and emotional on one song ('This Is a Low', for example), like a Blackpool fleapit gizmo on the next. Almost all the songs are rich with comedy.

The finale is the intensely moving 'This Is a Low'. In the verses, the world goes slowly, sadly mad ('And into the sea go pretty England and me / Around the Bay of Biscay and back for tea'), with digs at English pop-whimsy and psychedelia. But in the chorus, as the radio keeps insisting that there is no cause for alarm ('This is a low . . . but it won't hurt you'), a huge swell of emotion takes over. Albarn, practically sobbing, cues in Coxon's squealing, layered guitars, and the album veers off into craziness and discord.

Exactly how good is it? Well, consider this. In the end- of-the-decade polls, the Smiths' The Queen is Dead was widely voted best album of the 1980s. The Queen is Dead had approximately one fifth of the musical scope of Parklife. It's time to get very excited about Blur.

'Parklife' is out now on Food Records (LP/CD/tape).