In a recent interview, Blur guitarist Graham Coxon described the impromptu recording sessions in 2013 that led to The Magic Whip, Blur’s first album as a foursome in 16 years.
The Hong Kong facility was cramped; the instruments ranged from rudimentary to esoteric; the band were often physically touching. “We were making sounds that were not particularly Blur sounds in this very un-Blur city in a very un-Blur studio,” explained Coxon, whose mission it became to transform these sketches into an album.
From these unpromising jams has come a strange, accidental Blur set: a late-life baby, the kind with grownup siblings. The Magic Whip obviously shares genes with all previous Blur endeavours, but it cannot avoid being a very different sort of creature to its predecessors.
Its players now include a criminal lawyer and a cheesemonger, an opera writer and a confessional post-punk, no longer engaged in the Britpop wars or the sort of internecine squabbles that excommunicated Coxon from Think Tank, Blur’s last album (2003). Under their bridge flows a whole Yangtze of bygones and side projects. Most significantly of all, The Magic Whip (a complex notion, embodying both treat and threat, if the lyrics of the faintly sinister Ice Cream Man are anything to go by) was not hatched as some grand reunification statement, but pieced together by Coxon and Blur’s heyday producer Stephen Street in fits and starts in 2014. The band only managed to convene in Hong Kong because of a series of cancelled tour dates; Damon Albarn returned there in December 2014 to conceptualise lyrics, once this eighth album looked like a goer.
At its best, The Magic Whip has all the charm of Blur at their most mysterious, and little of the laddish triumphalism of Blur in headline slot mode. Fans craving the latter may well scratch their heads at songs such as Ghost Ship, a loose, reggae-ish funk that stars James’s bassline, an uncharacteristically laid-back Coxon, and the whistle of an emptying balloon.
Two tracks go out of their way to reassure the faithful. The satisfying opener, Lonesome Street, packs a snappy Coxon riff, Albarn’s staccato phrasing and some Beatle-y larks: you can almost see Alex James waving his fringe around as his bass plonks along. Go Out prances and pouts, all knees, elbows and the kind of dissonance that, in Blur money, is always associated with Coxon. Albarn undersings elegantly, tossing off lines with insouciance, where in the 90s he used to sneer them.
By contrast, a few songs later, the extraordinary Thought I Was a Spaceman is an entirely different proposition – one that relocates David Bowie to the South Seas, adding grandeur by degrees. At first, it sounds like Albarn solo; but the band turn themselves up by increments, transforming an appealing existentialist ditty about an everyday robot into a rattling, buzzing thing of beauty, awash with Mellotron and string stabs.
If there is a theme on this disparate record, it’s dislocation. The chippy ennui that has cemented Blur firmly into the canon of dissenting British bands is no longer parochial, but global. “Taking off again/ The 5.14 to East Grinstead,” sings Albarn, but there is proportionally more “eight o’clock Kowloon emptiness” to The Magic Whip. There Are Too Many of Us is a string-laden march about tightly packed lives that reflects Singapore as well as it does Streatham. Dystopian tunes brought on by sprawling neon cities are hardly a new thing in pop. But at best, this incarnation of Blur have a knack for making this bewildering world seem small, and our troubles universal.
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