‘Damon’s just trolling us!’ One of my favourite snippets of the lengthy text conversations a friend and I have had about the new about the new Blur material. I’m not usually very good at communicating long distance, but being a Blur fan in North America is tough. I woke up to the big news 8 hours later than my co-nationals back in Blighty and when I declared it from the mountains was met with little more than ‘oh yeah, they have that ‘woo-hoo’ song right?’ Blur are worth as much serious artistic consideration as Wet Wet Wet in the minds of many, but I consider their career as much a part of British musical history as that of Radiohead, Bowie and the Beatles. It was an evolution that warped itself up fairly satisfactorily; Graham ripped open their brit-pop sound with jittering guitars and dirty synths, before storming off to give Damon one last hurrah, experimenting the same world music style he’d go on to use in his 5,000 other projects. Cut to 2015 and the trolling began.
First, after denying it for years, Damon appears at a press conference with a cheeky grin, a massive Hyde Park show and a brand new Blur album. They dropped Go Out first; blasts of feedback over a pummelling bassline and ultra-heavy guitars on the chorus put the return of Graham in the spotlight. I was prepared for a progression of their late 90s work, until I heard There Are Too Many Of Us a month later, which sounds like nothing they’ve ever done before. A bizarre creation, the claustrophobic track opens with cold synth strings over a military beat. On paper this seems like transparent social commentary, but unlike their many tracks which explore the ways in which modern life is rubbish, it masses more to a feeling of dread than a piece of witty satire. The very next day however, opener Lonesome Street was released, which would slot comfortably into ‘The Great Escape’ with its catchy riff, jaunty tone and lyrical reference to London life. All this misdirection has me wondering where the new album would fit in to the rest of their discography. Naysayers could peg the whole thing as an elaborate publicity stunt, but The Magic Whip sounds like anything but a cash cow, comeback album of a past it, pop band.
In terms of structure, it is arguably their least pop album. Even at their strangest, Blur largely used the verse/ chorus/ repeat model of song writing, but these songs were born out of jams and it shows. Both New world towers and Thought I Was A Spaceman repeat the same melody, the first varying it’s instrumentation, starting with fluttering piano and ending with spaced out synth chords and the second building from drones over a squelchy drum machine to a swirling, guitar solo frenzy. This results in an album that rewards multiple listens in the same way that Damon’s solo album of last year did; revealing the subtle details. The latter mentioned track is a particular highlight, reaching a similar high to 13’s rear end tracks, whereas Pyongyang, another standout, soars in its chorus after low key verses, similar to ‘life-era’ singles such as The Universal and To The End. Comparison to Everyday Robots is appropriate, because seeing as Graham did most of the work in producing the album post sessions, The Magic Whip is very much in Damon’s style. Ice Cream Man, with its melancholy tone despite a cartoony subject matter and downtrodden guitars following spritely bleeps, could fit in on a Gorilaz album and Ghost Ship sounds like a progression of their Think Tank sound.
There are plenty familiar elements of a Blur album in The Magic Whip. I Broadcast acts as their short punk song in the vein of Bank Holiday and Chinese Bombs, although doesn’t roar quite like those tracks. Rather it uses stubby production reminiscent of new wave bands like Devo, to questionable effect, coming off more un-invested than stylised. Ong Ong is a classic Blur sing along, with ‘na na na’s’ and a catchy chorus. Whilst I find the song’s breezy, vampire weekend like tone refreshing, some may find it a little too sugar sweet. One departure from Blur’s past work is its lack of cohesiveness. On the one hand, Hong Kong bleeds in to its overall tone in a similar way that Morocco did on Think Tank. Bright, almost tacky electronics are layered over melancholy melodies and lyrics to create the same seedy vibe as is given off by its cover. Then again, whilst other Blur albums have successfully replicated several different genres but sounded like they could only exist together, The Magic Whip sounds disjointed in places; particularly the first 3 tracks. An exception to this is the transition from the beautiful, soulful ballad My Terracotta Heart in to There Are Too Many Of Us, which sounds even better in the context of the album and stands up with their best songs.
‘So you’re not just doing it because you need the money then?’ asked Jo Wiley in an interview. ‘Hardly’ jested Alex James, in his pompous, cheese magnate tone. Allow me to be so naive as to believe their story. While the sequence of events may seem calculated, while critics may argue it’s an attempt to stay relevant and fans may project some chapter in a long history, The Magic Whip sounds like a band that’s finally in a place where they’re ready to create together again. With songs this good flowing this easily, the future seems bright for Blur.
Words: Rob Paterson