It’s not every day I get to review an album quite like this one. When the band that changed my life release their first album in 16 years, this becomes more than just a record, a life event in fact.
A lot of groups fade out after the creative rot sets in, things have to come to a natural end, and the members move on to other things in the hope that they can reinvent themselves. This was not the case with Blur. In the late 90s, their last two albums as a four piece saw them on a creative high which cemented their reputation as legends. The magic was still there and there could have been plenty of it to come, as proved by the tantalising non-album single ‘Music Is My Radar’. None of us knew it at the time, but behind the scenes there was major turmoil tearing these four friends apart. Strained relationships and high tensions within the band led to Graham Coxon‘s exit in 2001. Blur were weakened and one of music’s greatest relationships was cut short. Who knows what they could have accomplished had they stayed intact…
The Coxon-less Blur hobbled on and re-emerged in 2003 with the patchy Think Tank, an album that was clearly missing something. The void became even more apparent when the band went out on tour and with Damon Albarn feeling more inspired by his other projects, activity within Blur gradually ceased as they all embarked on their individual lives. Without Blur, British music dried up as the noughties went on and many of us were feeling their absence by the time we’d realised it had been six years since their last appearance.
In 2009, it was hugely exciting to hear that Graham and the rest of the group had put their differences aside and were playing together again, leading to a triumphant and emotional return at Glastonbury that year.
With their hits now all-time classics and their albums regarded as seminal works, the prospect of new material seemed somewhat unimaginable. What would Blur sound like after so many years away and could it ever be as good as it was the first time round? Rather than striving for a grand comeback hit, in 2010 they surprised us with the limited edition single ‘Fools Day’, a subtle, low-key reconnection, and more of a “hello again, how’s it going?” rather than a sensational return. What was obvious was that ‘Fool’s Day’ was a comma that suggested unfinished business, but with Albarn constantly distracting himself with other musical endeavours, it seemed that the four of them only had time to get together and bash out the old hits. To coincide with a series of brilliant shows in 2012, the band released two more new songs, and although I described ‘Under The Westway’ and ‘The Puritan’ as “wonderful”, in retrospect they sound somewhat subdued, and again more of a hint that this was just them warming up for bigger events.
Myself and many other fans longed for a fully active Blur to return with a new album and were certainly frustrated as the years produced nothing but “it might happen one day” replies from band members and rumours of “brilliant” recording sessions being halted. Fans cried out a hopeful cheer as news came in 2013 that the band had started making an album during a week’s break from touring in Hong Kong, but our hopes were again extinguished. “I just haven’t got the time,” said Damon when questioned about making a new Blur album, adding that the other members were “just all doing other stuff” and that he couldn’t “foresee us in the near future being in a position to finish” the material. In July 2014 he claimed that the album “may just be one of those records that never comes out”, blaming the Hong Kong heat for the band returning home before work could be finished on the album. “If I’d been able to write the lyrics there and then about being there, we’d have finished the record,” he said. “I like making records in short periods of time… Sometimes, if you can’t do it all at once, it dissipates…”
Damon’s successful solo album ‘Everyday Robots’ and subsequent tour kept him busy throughout 2014, and with a musical in the pipeline as well as talk of new material from Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad And The Queen, up until a few months ago it seemed unlikely that we’d hear from Blur anytime soon. Then on one morning in February 2015 came rumours that the band were set to announce a new album, and all of a sudden, years of waiting finally came to an end as The Magic Whip‘s existence was revealed to the world. Determined that there would be a new album, Graham Coxon returned to the recordings that were started during the five days spent in Hong Kong and reunited with producer Stephen Street to shape hours of elongated jams into structured compositions.
“It was something we did off our own backs,” Coxon explained. “It was quite an overwhelming project. There was jamming and sonic landscaping. I said, ‘Damon, can I have a little chat? I said, ‘Do you mind if I have a look at this music and see if there’s anything worth pursuing. I’d compare it to someone’s notes, scrawling all over the page. We slung it over to Stephen and he looked through bits of it.” After Alex James and Dave Rowntree laid down additional parts, Damon and Graham returned to the studio in December to write lyrics and complete the record. “They did some editing and some production work and sent around the initial tracks and we all realised we’d done something quite special there,” said drummer Rowntree. “There was 18 months [in-between recording the songs] which allowed us to have a bit of perspective on it. When they played it back, that was the time everyone got very excited.”
Since the album’s completion last year, the band kept information about the new record under wraps. “We had a blood pact between us about who we were allowed to tell and who we weren’t…” said Rowntree.
While fans were thrilled, a few pessimistic voices on social media posed questions such as “What’s the point in Blur coming back with new stuff? Damon’s solo work was getting really interesting, why resort to nostalgia?”. Which was missing the point entirely, since the new music was made to escape being trapped entirely in the past. I myself was a bit cynical, but not about the reunion or the release of a new album. Instead, as a fan I was concerned that the way the record was put together might not lead to what I’d hoped for. I was both excited and very nervous about what The Magic Whip would sound like. This is the band that soundtracked my youth, and because of that it seemed inevitable that nothing was ever going to live up to the songs they released during those years: “Although I have longed for a new Blur record for years, the last thing I’d want would be for them to record songs because they felt forced.” I wrote in a blog post. “To make a great record, you often need to be inspired. I just hope that this album is more than a load of recordings made under pressure. It’s also a bit odd that this seminal band are releasing a comeback album comprised of songs that have been put together in such an unorthodox and non-organic way…”
The fact that they decided not to continue with the recording sessions suggested that their hearts just weren’t in it. It also looked like some of the band were more desperate to make a new record than others, and editing down a load of studio jams was “the only way it was going to happen”. I’ve wanted a new Blur album more than anything, but not a half-arsed one that they felt pressured to make. Talk of these songs made from “anything we could salvage” didn’t exactly fill me with confidence. However, it turns out that working in such a way may have actually resulted in their most natural record. The Magic Whip is everything I wanted in a new Blur album and more.
As the album begins, we are taken to a familiar scene as ‘Lonesome Street’ revisits the sound of ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ and ‘The Great Escape’. Re-establishing the connection perfectly, it’s like finding yourself in a vibrant place after a long absence and being greeted by some old mates who take you down various different streets, filling you in on all that has changed and the things that remain. With lyrical imagery involving things like “the 514 to East Grinstead”, you might initially be fooled into thinking that the once forward-thinking Blur have taken a backwards step until Damon’s pastoral shades, chord changes and Coxon’s odd Syd Barrett-esque bridge pull you down unpredictable avenues, leaving you in no doubt that this is the beginning of an eventful and thrilling journey. After being transported from the backdrop of London in the mid 90s, the setting of the majestic ‘New World Towers’ is a very different one indeed, fast forwarding to the technologically connected and emotionally disconnected climate of 2015. Continuing on from the sensual melancholic atmospheres of Albarn’s ‘Everyday Robots’ LP, its ghostly emotional impact and graceful, meditative beauty are achieved via an intricate, spacious arrangement. “I wanted that song to be a sort of science-fiction ‘Greensleeves’, so I was putting my energy into making it sound very English, but in a slightly off-kilter way,” says Graham. “It’s a bit like that weird cylindrical planet at the end of Interstellar – I loved that image from the film, so I was trying to write some chord sequences that sounded quite traditional, but putting these 1970s-sounding futuristic effects on top of them.”
For an album shaped so heavily by Graham, there aren’t as many distorted guitars as you’d expect. Maybe that’s because most of them are crammed into the awesomely noisy Go Out.Underlining their versatility as a unit, Coxon unleashes a torrent of stinging guitars against the thick wallop of the rhythm section before Damon’s foghorn chorus vocal accompanies the blazing noise to lift the whole thing forcefully off the ground. It’s exactly the sort of gloriously abrasive racket that we’ve been in dire need of since ’13’. Close your eyes, turn it up loud and listen to everything Coxon does across the track’s broodingly raucous 4 minutes and 40 minutes. The darkly playful melodies and the fat slinky groove of ‘Ice Cream Man’ prove to be a most infectious combination, reminiscent of what Think Tank might have been like had Graham been involved. Its ominous vibes and sing-along verses won’t take long to dig their way into the listener’s conscious, but the following ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ is much less of an instant gratifier. A deep and substantial piece where a sad tranquillity gathers intensity throughout, it requires a patient and attentive ear to absorb its layers of intricacies. It also finds the band continuing to evolve, with a cleverly executed Planet Of The Apes-style lyrical concept set to stratospheric atmospheres, with the patter of drum machines and shady, jazzy chords gradually leading to a mass of guitar noise taking off like a rocket as it builds to a climax. A psych-rock epic is the last thing you’d expect from an album that begins with a song like ‘Lonesome Street’, but such is this album’s urgently eclectic and adventurously vitalised nature.
The quirky pogo punk romp ‘I Broadcast’ returns to far more familiar territory and comes loaded with driving Coxon riffs. Evoking the hectic nature of the place it was recorded in, it brings to mind a 21 year old lovechild spawned by ‘Tracy Jacks’ and ‘Jubilee’. Its boisterous chant-along chorus will no doubt reawaken something inside many listeners, and its lively character is perfectly placed on the album to break up the more introspective moments. One such moment arrives in the form of the hauntingly fragile tearjerker ‘My Terracotta Heart’, a song that will strongly resonate with anyone experiencing the breakdown of a relationship, whether it be a musical partner, friend, family member or lover. Casting a poignant spell with its achingly soulful vocal lines, weeping guitars and mournful harmonies, again it’s more reminiscent of Albarn’s more recent musical territory. Lyrically it sees the frontman laying his heart bare once again as he laments the damage that his friendship with Graham has suffered over previous years. “I knew it was going to be an incredibly sad song, which is why I put that crying guitar on there,” says Coxon. “What I didn’t know at the time was that the lyrics would turn out to be about Damon and I, our long friendship and the ups and downs we’ve had.”
The darkness at the heart of this album is displayed further with the magnificent ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’, one of the most surprising things here, where striking synth strings and military snares lead to a groove evoking the sound of a dangerously overpopulated human race marching towards their own doom. Growing in stature throughout, much like the overcrowded tower blocks that it conjures up images of, its apocalyptic cosmic disco isn’t a million miles away from ‘Magic Fly’ by 70s outfit Space. Utilising qualities perfected during Damon’s years spent working on the Gorillaz records, it’s hard not to shed a tear of joy during the gloriously laid back ‘Ghost Ship’, a glistening glimpse into heaven where sumptuous notes, and a wondrous arrangement distract you from the fact that a Britpop band playing reggae really shouldn’t sound this sensational. After that particular ship sails happily off into the sunset, gathering spells of darkness lay straight ahead as the heavy, claustrophobic moods of the creeping ‘Pyongyang’ rise to the surface. Yet somehow, glorious rays of sun burst through the clouds during a high reaching chorus that sits somewhere between ‘This Is A Low‘ and ‘To The End‘ while arriving from another previously unexplored place.
After such intense stuff, the ultimate helping of light relief arrives as the triumphant, celebratory singalong ‘Ong Ong’ captures the heart and the memory with immediate and joyous effect. Quite simply one of the most brilliantly direct pop songs Albarn has ever penned, its humble sweetness and instinctive hooks are impossible to resist, as is the noisy guitar that joins in for the last couple of bars; a classic. Again visiting a completely different territory, the powerful cinematic finale ‘Mirrorball’ moves slowly, slipping away mysteriously into the night with its shadowy guitar figures and a subtle breeze of darkly elegant strings.
Staying cool under pressure and delivering an effortlessly superb piece of work, Blur use the things that made them great in the past, combine them with the things they’ve learned since, and emerged revitalised to create something that feels familiar yet fresh. It has a sense of space not present on the previous albums, as well as a sense of alienation that stems from The Magic Whip‘ sounding appropriately very much like a British band making a record in Hong Kong. In places, it’s brighter and more anthemic than much of 13 and 1997’s Blur, yet darker and more introspective than Parklife and The Great Escape. It’s more focused and far more consistent than Think Tank and more eclectic than Modern Life Is Rubbish and Leisure. It remembers how the world was the last time they met with us, and how things have changed since while embracing being all grown up in the present day with a newfound sense of purpose. And like any great Blur record, it sees them evolving and exploring new ground.
I was worried that a new album wouldn’t live up to the ones that these four men released during my teen years. As it turns out, these new songs give me back the buzz I had in my youth and make me feel like a teenager all over again. If this does turn out to be the last time we ever hear from Blur, then what a brilliant way to end things – on a high. However, music this great suggests a recharged unit who still have plenty of this sort of brilliance left in them, and The Magic Whip could be just the start of another chapter in the story of this remarkable band. The most complete and astonishing album that anyone has produced in years. And trust Blur to be the ones that made it. Thank you for not letting us down.