After a 12 year wait, Britpop’s forerunners, Blur, release their 8th studio album, The Magic Whip, on 27th April. Thanks to Coxon’s sudden departure during the recording of 2003’s Think Tank it is their first complete album featuring the original lineup since 1999’s 13. The big question on everyone’s lips of course is, was it worth the wait? Answering in the style of Albarn ’It’s an absolute corker me old mucker’! (That’s a ‘YES!’ to all our non-cockney speaking readers)
I’m always dubious about big bands releasing material after such a long hiatus, but in Blur’s case it has worked well. Rather than entering the studio as soon as they decided to reform, they toured extensively for a few years. It was an unexpected turn of events during this period; the cancellation of an Asian tour in 2013, that found them at a loose end in Hong Kong. Returning to the studio for a few days waiting for a flight home, the band wrote some new material that Albarn never expected would see the light of day. This is where Coxon, art school stalwart came in. After revisiting and having tweaked the new tracks, he sent a demo to Albarn who loved it so much, he returned to Hong Kong seeking inspiration for the lyrics. The complete package is a stroke of genius and Coxon’s influence is evident throughout the album, deftly pulling the band back from the hip-hop inspired digression of Think Tank and putting them firmly back on track, making the low-fi indie-rock they do best.
I have to admit that on my first listen, I was a little dubious, if not a little disappointed. I had my expectations in the 90’s and The Magic Whip lacks the stadium sized pop anthems I loved and grew up with. There’s nothing on the album that compares to Song 2 and you won’t find an epic gospel inspired sing along tune like Tender, BUT this isn’t the same four piece from the decade of my teens. Without the pressure of their label to produce pop-hits, armed with the lessons they learnt on their 24 year journey and with their renewed friendships, this LP is more mature and timeless than its predecessors. It has a layered depth of sound that builds on their previous efforts and though that first listen may not have met my expectations, the more I listen to it, the more it exceeds them.
Opener Lonesome Street plays out like a synopsis of Blur’s career. It features their familiar steadfast reliable drums, funky bass hooks, lo-fi punk inspired guitar and cockernee lyricisms. While singing about the underground and the “5-14 to East Grinstead”, it swoops through a melancholic bridge, back into it’s punchy upbeat verse and holds dear a great volume of inspiration from British pop music history. It’s obvious that it there are influences from the likes of The Kinks and there’s a few seconds of vocals that sound like an excerpt from The Beatle’s “I am The Walrus” to boot. It’s a perfect start to the album and gives way to a flood of musical genius.
The LP features a great mix of archetypal Blur and new inspiration. Many tracks feature oriental influences, such as Pyongnang and Ong Ong, my favourite example however is New World Towers, a melancholic plodder that 2 around minutes in gives way to a beautiful, orient inspired solo riff from Coxon and echoing synth. Elsewhere we have low-fi rock like Go Out’s punchy riffage combined with plenty of ‘oh-oh’ing and razor like drawn out guitar torture. There’s also a new wave of electronica in their music (pun fully intended) such as I Broadcast and Ice Cream Man which sees Damon crooning about ‘something new’ to the backing of pac-man-esque, dripping computer generated sound.
What is new to my ear, is that Albarn has written about of some very serious themes. The broken relationship between himself and Coxon on Terracotta Heart seems to be the only introspective number, while the rest focuses on a range of broader subjects. Social issues like the influence of technology on modern life, to the ecological issues associated with the increasing human population on There Are Too Many of Us are evident throughout. The more mature approach to his songwriting is refreshing compared to the witticisms we had grown to expect. This, combined with an evolved sound and the aforementioned outside influences on a great proportion of the numbers, makes the entire album is just as refreshing.
I couldn’t find a track on The Magic Whip that I dislike and while 17 year old me longs for something in the vane of Country House I’m not going to find it here. This aside, The Magic Whip is genuinely brilliant and a welcome edition to the bands growing back catalogue. I guess all that remains now is to formally welcome these London boys back to where they belong: The forefront of contemporary British music.