They did it. The bastards finally did it. After much talk, suggestion and rumour-mongering, Blur have released their first ‘proper’ album in 16 years (2003’s effectively Graham Coxon-less Think Tank gets disqualified for cheating).
For many bands, the release of a new album after a successful comeback tour would merely mean reopening the same seam they mined decades earlier to diminishing returns. After all, the fans who were penniless kids back in the day now have jobs and money; they can easily afford to splurge money on an inferior effort cobbled together from the short time the band could bear to be in the studio together. But on The Magic Whip, recorded by the band in complete isolation at a tiny studio in Hong Kong, Blur manage to avoid the typical reunion album pitfalls that undermined releases from the likes of The Stooges, Iron Maiden and Blondie. This is a band that produced not one but two brilliant songwriters (and one excellent cheesemaker) who would go on to create some of the most engaging and original music of the decade whilst never degenerating into self-parody or self-indulgence. Consequentially it comes as little surprise that at no stage during the album’s run does it feel like the band rest on their laurels, preferring instead to grab each opportunity for reinvigoration with both hands.
That’s not to say that Blur have eschewed their distinctive sound and style in a self-conscious attempt to stay relevant. Songs such as ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘I Broadcast’ feature the much-missed springloaded guitar lines that post-reformation tracks ‘Under The Westway’ and ‘Fool’s Day’ left out. The rhythmic synchronicity David Rowntree and Alex James built up after 1996’s Blur shows no sign of diminishing with time (unlike the former’s political aspirations and the latter’s authentic credibility). Even Damon Albarn seems happy enough regressing to the effected accented style he dropped the moment Jamie Hewlett drew 2D. However, this is not an album that could have been written by Phase 1 Blur. Take the effortless ‘Ghost Ship’, the touching ‘Terracotta Heart’ and the expansive ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’. Each of these songs is informed by Albarn’s post-Blur tenures as, respectively, one half of the genre-bending Gorillaz, an acoustic guitar-toting solo artist and an unlikely operatic director. Even at their most inspired moments on 13, Blur never sounded as informed and comfortable in their experimentation as they do here.
Despite Albarn’s deserved title as ‘Eternal Emperor of Music Everywhere’, the man truly responsible for the eventual emergence of this album is his perennially bespectacled sideman Graham Coxon. Given that it was allegedly his drug-fuelled obstinacy that derailed the band in the first place, it seems fitting that he was the one who decided to book a small practise room in Hong Kong and begin the process that would lead to The Magic Whip. His well-calloused fingers are all over the theme and content of the album too, from the opening guitar squall that begins ‘Lonesome Street’ revealing itself to be a collection of motifs as the album progresses to the full-bodied guitar fuzz that rises from the depths during ‘Go Out’. It’s also good to have his secondary vocals (absent since ‘Coffee & TV’) back as well, his world-weary tones acting as a sarcastic counterpoint to Albarn’s earnestness.
There is also a fifth member of the band whose presence is felt across the album, and that’s the city of Hong Kong itself. For better or worse Blur have always been intrinsically linked to London, and so hearing Albarn admit “I love the aspects of another city” at the beginning of ‘I Broadcast’ is actually quite refreshing. Much like Blur, Hong Kong has had a tumultuous few years, and this joint identity crisis bleeds into songs such as the ostensibly optimistic ‘Ong Ong’ and the haunting ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’.
The latter of these serves as the album’s crown jewel: a modern paean to the overpopulation caused by the eternal pursuit of immortality and the self-contradictory isolation this leads to. It’s all played out over orchestral swells, martial drum rolls and the most unsettling synth-line Albarn’s trotted out since 1994’s glorious ‘Trouble In The Message Centre’ (the thinking man’s favourite Blur song, which the band acknowledged when they pegged it onto the end of their new album showcase in London). Alex James recently stated that the band have entered their “rock gentlemen” phase, a fitting designation for a band who’ve approached their resurgence with an admirable combination of intellect, adventurousness and tact. I’ve already listened to The Magic Whip more than I’ve listened to Leisure and The Great Escape put together. Who knows? Maybe one day it will overtake Parklife and 13 too.