The build-up and release of Blur’s eighth studio album The Magic Whip these past few months has felt, in all honesty, like a remarkably hasty affair. The announcement was only made in February, but now all of a sudden here it is. It’s been a long time coming. Twelve years have been and gone since their last record, 2003’s Think Tank, and you’ll have to venture back to 1999 to find the last album that guitarist Graham Coxon made an adequate contribution to, with 13. But you can’t say they’ve been lazing about since.
It could be argued that frontman Damon Albarn has been the most successful of the quartet since. As musical director and chief songwriter of the Gorillaz, the world’s most recognisable virtual band, he found massive fame globally and at the same time showed his true versatility as an artist. Coxon, who left the band early in Think Tank’s production, also found some achievement with his solo work throughout the 2000s. Bassist Alex James, however, became a cheesemaker and writes food columns for the Sun while drummer Dave Rowntree had a short stint as a would-be Labour politician.
After a wildly popular reunion tour in 2009, an Olympic concert, and several single releases, many thought it was inevitable, but it is nonetheless a very pleasant surprise to hear all four of them back together after the hiatus. Returning with them is Stephen Street, their principle producer, who joined them through all but their first and last albums, most notably Britpop classics Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995).
And it is this bygone era Blur hark to with their album opener Lonesome Street, which bounces along a classic Coxon riff sure to give many listeners the nostalgia trip they were looking for. Perhaps lacking the ferocity and tempo it would’ve received by Blur circa ’94, seen especially in Parklife’s track Jubilee, it is nonetheless a fun, upbeat trip.
It’s joined on the tracklist by a rabble of songs that showcase the band’s lasting ability to write lively, catchy tunes, not least Ong Ong, such a fantastic pop anthem I would be surprised if it wasn’t released as a single soon. Lyrics with a rich singalong value mean there’s no doubt this will be a crowd favourite at live shows. Go Out, released in February as the album’s lead single, has a real brainhook rhythm coursing through that gets steadily heavier and crunchier as Coxon turns up the distortion, while Albarn half-chants about going to the local pub alone and “dancing with myself.”
Isolation is the key theme in a few of the tracks such as the poignant Pyongyang, which was inspired by the capital city of North Korea’s vicious dictatorship. There Are Too Many of Us ironically continues this theme with the instrumentation, but feels oddly out of place on the album. It is too straight-faced, with sharp violin strokes that make it sound like a news bulletin and a marching band beat that becomes tedious fast. But it is at the forlorn moments that the album produces its best songs. Tracks like New World Towers and Thought I Was A Spaceman demonstrate the knack Damon Albarn has had for achingly sad songs of late, shown prolifically on his solo record Everyday Robots which was only released last year. The best of these might just be My Terracotta Heart which has a beautifully despondent chorus, supposedly inspired by Coxon and Albarn’s estranged relationship during the Blur hiatus.
Looking at the album as a whole, it’s a very strong effort from the Colchester-bred outfit. When a band with such historical and cultural pedigree reform after so many years you could expect a decent amount of nostalgia that can often bog an album down. That isn’t the case here. Fans looking for a blast from the past will find respite in a few songs and in Coxon’s familiar unruly guitar style, but in its entirety the album is a very forward-thinking collection that shows how Albarn and Coxon have moved on as musicians. The Magic Whip makes for a gratifying and interesting experience.
What do you think of The Magic Whip? Let us know in the comments below!