Blur’s first album in 12 years isn’t just a big reunion of curious old friends looking for one last shot at a music industry game that’s previously challenged them with media and critical obstacles, it’s a necessary closure for all the fights, resentments, disagreements and tantrums that affected the production process on self-titled album Blur and their fifth album 13, and forced guitarist and co-writer Graham Coxon to quit the band before the release of their last album Think Tank.
Although said album was a critical triumph, Coxon’s absence was felt and all the busy culture-collage instrumentation leaning towards Africa, anti-war ambitions and bold electric submersion occasionally felt like a poor chaotic substitute lacking a solid guitar backbone to really call it Blur. Thankfully, the B-team has reunited and as a result of state and D-I-Y counselling sessions, they sound content, happy and diplomatic on their eighth album The Magic Whip. An album that has an intelligent balance of their familiar pre-Think Tank rock edge suitable for provoking frenzies for their wild Hyde Park crowds, their forward-thinking maturity in terms of political significance, the formulated expansion of their genre scope and giving the album a conceptual context (this time: Urban life and politics) that has always been a strength of their collection.
The album’s existence is a bit of an amalgamation of lucky coincidence, happenstance and distraction because the band found themselves stuck in Hong Kong for five days after a suspicious cancellation of their performance at a Tokyo rock festival and they found that the city began to inspire the quartet to write fresh new material. This explains the mandarin featured in the album cover, promotional material and subtitles of their music videos, as well as the Chinese natives in their new videography and the decision to record in a small studio in the Fragrant Harbour – with Stephen Street for the first time since 1997’s Blur.
Damon Albarn’s time away from Blur was arguably the most prolific of the group in terms of musical creativity and innovation (including the invention of his instrument the Klaxophone) and in 2008, he began to explore China in academic depth for his electronic opera composition for Chen Shi-Zheng’s Monkey: Journey To The West. It involved Chinese instruments such as the pipa, recycled their national anthem and furthermore composed music in an experimental method that combined the pentatonic scale and the five point communist star.
Yet wisely, he avoided the temptation to marinade The Magic Whip with the same stereotypical Chinese instruments and instead just adds tablespoons of its flavour, most notably in the form of an Asian xylophone in the psychedelic-acoustics of “Thought Was A Space Man” and in the Oriental string section to the otherwise Blues-rock zeitgeist of “Mirrorball“. In reality, it could be set anywhere as there are hints of Spanish guitar, Hawaiian air and a clever combination of the organic acoustic guitar and 8-bit platform game sounds which are more reminiscent of Japanese culture – heard most effectively on the nursery rhyme-like “Ice Cream Man“.
The return of Graham Coxon’s presence is essential at creating the creative balance of the old and new. On “Mirrorball”, “Ghost Ship” and “Ong Ong“, his midnight vibrato of blues and country fusion is reflective of a contemporary era where Blues-rock has been revitalised (Black Keys, Lord Huron, Daniel Knox, Heroin and Your Veins to name a few) but it’s not incredibly strange considering Blur have been at the peak of many music phases: Madchester, Britpop, Grunge, Indie Rock. Although it’s a slightly risky strategy considering the backlashes they received in the past for copying trends but Blur were born risky.
“Go Out” is Graham Coxon returning back to his nostalgic grunge sonic experiments from their eponymous album Blur, with dominating feedback and distortion becoming the screaming oxygen of the track, and comparisons to the explosive “Song 2” and “On Your Own” will inevitably be made. In the second half of Blur’s evolution, they have allowed time for themselves to jam more rather than fit to a radio airplay structure and Coxon takes advantage of this on many tracks including “I Broadcast“, in which his performances span from Pond-esque psychedelic rock, David Bowie-space rock, Two Door Cinema’s choppy wide-eyed guitar and rough alternative rock.
After the commercially-distant, complex and William Orbit produced 13, Damon Albarn has stated that he wants Blur to be a rare intelligent force in mainstream culture. Broad-minded, political, fit into the art rock genre and full of thought-provoking substance but also accessible and that’s why Albarn accomplishes the lyrics and singing styles on The Magic Whip. Non-lexical vocables feature in “Go Out”, “Ong Ong”, “Lonesome Street” (including whistling) and harmonies which were once forbidden in Blur’s 1990’s work, move freely throughout the album bring in the band together as a whole.
Albarn still sings with a recognizable and straight-forward Essex accent which makes his vocals unmistakable and is one of the few album consistencies but it’s gradually become more and more sophisticated, varied and calmer – as heard on his sorrowful and biographical album Everyday Robots. It’s melodic on “My Terracotta Heart“, it lifts in pitch on “Pyongyang“, avoids the temptation to shout on punkish “Go Out” and occasionally adopts a megaphonic filter that’s very Sgt. Pepper on “Lonesome Street”> and “Thought I Was A Space Man”. Although there are moments that are particularly unintelligible like on “I Broadcast” which is unnecessary and will be a nightmare for lyric websites.
Once narrow-minded and ultra-British patriots, Albarn’s words have followed suit to his enlarging music boundaries. The first indication is seen by the album’s title, which relates to both an English ice-cream and a Chinese firework and observations such as “What you got? Mass produced in somewhere hot” (“Lonesome Street”), “New world towers, carved out of grey white skies” (“New World Towers“) and “Cause there are too many of us in tiny houses here and there. Passing out somewhere but you won’t care” (the beautifully The Universal-esque “There Are Too Many Of Us“). Partially relating to his new surroundings, along with Mandarin news sound bites and recorded atmospheric noise, shows that Albarn has grown a connection with the urban setting of Hong Kong and it’s made him think in a way that was once reserved exclusively for suburban England.
In the end, The Magic Whip is an album that like most Blur’s work is multi-layered depending on your preference. On one level, it’s incredibly fun and joyous with its mature sing-alongs, glorious Elbow-like structure and memorable lyrics but if you choose to dig deeper, it can also be rewarding on a meaningful level. With Damon Albarn stating the album is a “great big positive punctuation mark” and that he is unsure whether “it’s an end of a chapter or a book“, it suggest there’s more life for a band that have set an example of how to persistently triumph in adversity. Blur’s The Magic Whip is out now via Parlophone Records, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs