Blur – The Magic Whip
Blur make an impressive comeback with their first album in over a decade, says DOUG WALLEN
Here it is: the new Blur album that once looked anything but certain. After an initial reunion in 2009, which brought guitarist Graham Coxon back to the band he’d left in 2002, there have been years of hopeful turns and false starts. We got a few new singles but also felt the sting when Blur dropped out of Big Day Out. Now, though, we’re finally being rewarded for all that patience, with an Aussie tour happening around Splendour in the Grass and their first LP since 2003.
In the end, it took a 2013 sojourn in Hong Kong to tease out The Magic Whip, an album that does everything right, if in the most unassuming of ways. It feels every bit like a Blur album, from Damon Albarn’s rumpled musings to Coxon’s muddy guitars, yet for the most part it’s determinedly downbeat. Maybe it’s fitting for an album that began while the band was stuck in a foreign city after a cancelled festival, but there’s a lot more reflection here than anthem-making.
In fact, many of Albarn’s lyrics come directly from him wandering around Hong Kong. There’s the “green, green, the neon green” of ‘New World Towers’, “carved out of great white skies, 24 hours,” and the overpopulation-bred isolation of ‘There Are Too Many of Us’. ‘Ghost Ship’ name-checks the city explicitly, even as ‘Thought I Was a Space Man’ locates itself in Hyde Park – the site of Blur’s first reunion show – and yet remarks upon “distant sand dunes” like a stranger exploring alien terrain.
“Everything here sounds like classic Blur”
These themes of modern dislocation are nothing new for Albarn; just look to last year’s solo album Everyday Robots. And as always, it’s rewarding to parse his words for their melancholy resonance and low-key social commentary alike. (“Before you log out, hold close to me,” goes a line from closer ‘Mirror Ball’.) But this being a Blur album, the real appeal lies in the collision of Albarn’s familiar motifs with Coxon’s enlivening guitar threads and the perfectly attuned rhythm section of bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree. Especially welcome are all the extra vocals, which range from whistling and ‘Song 2’-ish “woo hoo”s to call-and-response exchanges and singalong harmonies. Despite rumours of conflict in the studio since reuniting – and maybe this is to the credit of longtime producer Stephen Street – Blur feel all too comfortable throughout the album.
Song for song, everything here sounds like classic Blur – although not the Blur of any one era. Lead single ‘Go Out’ exploits the noisy-suave balance of the Coxon/Albarn team-up, while the dishevelled party song ‘I Broadcast’ achieves off-the-cuff catchiness with prickly, ‘90s-sounding guitars; it’s the album’s most throwback-sounding song, and one of the more anthemic. The keyboard squeaks of ‘Pyongyang’ recall The Great Escape closer ‘Yuko & Hiro’, while the standout ‘Ghost Ship’ more reflects Albarn’s explorations outside of Blur, toying with a reggae vibe at the start before arriving at something like tropical R’n’B. Even when the songs’ sentiments approach the sappier side – see ‘My Terracotta Heart’ and ‘Ong Ong’ – the gorgeous arrangements keep us from cringing.
But the most Blur of them all is ‘Lonesome Street’, both jaunty and grimy and complete with Coxon’s very English bit of vocals. There are funky keyboards and echoes of ‘Coffee and TV’, plus that prize combination of genial attitude and arch smirk. Some fans of Albarn’s work with Gorillaz and Bobby Womack, among other projects, might not view This Magic Whip as very adventurous, but there is a quiet experimental streak that keeps every song shuffling through new ideas.
This album may not be loaded with extroverted would-be hits, but its woozy grandeur already has the stuff of real staying power. It’s up there with Blur’s best albums, and a reminder of just how well the band reconcile their divergent ideas.