Review Summary: Definitely better than any Oasis record in decades.
The most amazing thing about The Magic Whip
is not the very fact of its creation, but rather how seamlessly it slides into Blur’s catalogue, a new chapter of a book that’s ink still looks fresh. In the grand scheme of rock band reunions, the six-year gap between 2003’s Think Tank
and the band’s only somewhat surprising run of shows in 2009 is trivial. The “only somewhat” is cynicism speaking in an age where nostalgia pays handsomely; the “surprising,” of course, is the very real enmity between Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon that split Blur apart and transformed Think Tank
from a promising exploration to a flawed, if beautiful, record. The paths Coxon and Albarn took in their solo efforts were expected yet entirely satisfying – if they never brought it back, it would have been a tragedy, but you could understand. Yet when Blur came back to Hyde Park and played the hits, it seemed not up to par but entirely necessary
; tens of thousands of people singing along to “Tender,” Coxon and Albarn and James and Rowntree killing it as if they had been rehearsing these hits incognito the past few years. That they were able to put another six years of touring and botched recording sessions behind them and put out this long-gestating, bizarre little Blur album is a testament to the band’s separate creative energies, pooled back into one. The Magic Whip
sounds like what these guys were always meant to do.
I never thought I’d get a chance to review a new Blur album, and contextualizing the band and its history from the perspective of The Magic Whip
would be a rich and broad well to draw platitudes from, but there’s no need: this is, simply and purely, a great, if blissfully weird, Blur record. There is little in the way of grand statements here, nothing that screams “we’re back!,” although the conspicuous placement of “Lonesome Street” as the opener here is a wink to the past. That propulsive acoustic strum, the Britpoppy harmonies, Albarn and Coxon trading lines back and forth – the band, back together. More indicative of Blur the guitar band (i.e., Blur
) is first single “Go Out,” a song that plunks ahead entirely on the strength of Albarn’s lethargic, self-flagellating lyrics and the almost single-minded viciousness of Coxon’s riffs, which contort and distort themselves like an unruly sine wave before that closing guitar solo rips triumphantly, senselessly through. Along with “I Broadcast,” the neon-colored jolt of energy that marks the record’s midpoint, these are the songs that harken most clearly to Blur’s heyday. They are also, happily, nearly anachronisms on a record that’s more interested in exploring heretofore unseen paths.
Following “Lonesome Street,” “New World Towers” is morose and plodding, its themes in keeping with Albarn’s fixation on technological alienation and blithely literal lyrics. The hazy electronic production and delicate brushes of detail, a chintzy keyboard here, Coxon’s slithering lines there, would seem to point towards the latter part of Blur’s catalog and some of Albarn’s extracurricular work. But forecasting The Magic Whip
is a fool’s errand. This is a dense, twisty record that, largely due to Albarn’s always entertaining, if predictable, storytelling and the band’s willingness to never sit still, somehow remains incredibly fun. Where the synthesizer motif of “Ice Cream Man” should grate, instead it feels like an indispensable part of the song, an oddness percolating around an atmosphere that is strangely anxious, that cryptic vibe all of the appeal. “Thought I Was A Spaceman” sounds like nothing the band has done before, a drab, synthetic drone number degenerating into a swirling, almost jazzy dystopia, while “Pyongyang” takes that same sonic courage and merely highlights the beauty in its shimmering crests of sound. “Kid, the mausoleum’s fallen / and the perfect avenues / will seem empty without you / and the pink light that bathes the great leaders is fading,” Albarn sings wistfully, and, sure, this is another typically Albarn transcription of a visit he made to North Korea, but the message behind the words is transparent.
While producer Stephen Street is on hand to lend some of that ‘90s fairy dust, The Magic Whip
feels less like a touchstone and more like an album out of time. The sequence from the mournful, wrenching “My Terracotta Heart,” where Albarn and Coxon’s relationship gets its most sophisticated, and touching, examination yet, to easy highlight “Ghost Ship” showcase the lengths Blur can stretch their sound while still sounding definitively like Blur. The martial warning of “There Are Too Many Of Us” nestled up against the resolutely easygoing, dare I say sexy MOR-aping “Ghost Ship” is a stylistic juxtaposition few bands would have the stones to pull off. That Blur do and then drop the dumb, cell-phones-in-the-air sing-along of “Ong Ong” and have it feel all part of the same wonderfully scraggly thread is what makes The Magic Whip
such an exciting, and, yes, comforting listen. For if Blur can pull this off in forty hours of Hong Kong downtime and assorted scratched rehearsals, then the future is searingly bright indeed. This is the kind of record that proves Blur are about as interested in capturing past glories as they are in maintaining a pristine legacy. As The Magic Whip
proves, that legacy is a malleable entity, and the band remains concerned only with stretching it in ways they’ve never considered before.