Looking back at the Blur of twenty years ago, the acceleration from the sound of ‘The Great Escape’ onwards seems ridiculous. To go from ‘Mr Robinson’s Quango’ to ‘B.L.U.R.E.M.I.’ in four years is still hard to fathom, although the divergence and dirtying of their sound coincided with a similar breakdown in relations. The widely accepted narrative of the time was that the scuzzier guitars, American influences and partial drift from conventional song structures was a sop to a very pissed off Graham Coxon, who felt like they’d overplayed the “oompah” card at the height of Britpop. By the time sessions commenced for what was to become 2003’s ‘Think Tank’, Coxon’s contributions to the new songs were considered disruptive, suggesting that he had no desire to curtail the trajectory embarked upon with the band’s self-titled 1997 release.
The resulting split, which wasn’t to be healed until 2009’s reconciliation tour, nearly killed off Blur, the three remaining members realising that without Graham on stage it just wasn’t right. Damon Albarn recently dismissed the Coxon-less album, saying it “wasn’t really a Blur record” and so let us proceed with the idea that ‘The Magic Whip’ should instead be viewed as the successor to 1999’s ‘13’. All of which makes it rather remarkable to encounter an album comprised of twelve relatively conventional, often beautiful, songs.
Having been recorded in five unexpectedly free days in Hong Kong back in 2013, they were knocked into shape by Coxon towards the end of last year. The guitarist has talked of feeling like he owed the band something because of how it originally ended and how the building of ‘The Magic Whip’ was partly a repaying of that debt. This might go some way to explaining the less destructive and far more unifying approach to these songs. Add in Stephen Street, deservedly revered producer and the man behind the desk of four previous Blur records, and you get the band’s most natural sounding album in over twenty years.
Of course, this tremendous back-story would be worthless if they didn’t have the songs. Essentially knocking about ideas that Damon had with him on tour, recorded into his iPad as he has done for some time, it’s hard to believe the loose and limited studio session yielded such finery as ‘My Terracotta Heart’ and ‘Pyongyang’. While the 2010 single ‘Fool’s Day’ and 2012’s double-header of ‘Under The Westway’ and ‘The Puritan’ belied their less than thorough gestations, ‘The Magic Whip’ feels far more like a legitimate and utterly compelling next chapter.
‘Ghost Ship’ has a languid, summery polish to it that fairly saunters along, while ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ evolves around both a military beat and a murky vocal that are truly striking. Both break new ground for Blur, something which one suspects is in part to do with it being built around demos by a very different Damon to the last time he worked with the band. Much has been said about the reference points already and it should come as no surprise to anyone that there are moments evoking thoughts of Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Albarn’s solo effort from last year. There is a common denominator, after all, but what is noticeable and so utterly, utterly joyous is the presence of Coxon.
There’s a moment just before the three-minute mark in ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ where a distant, reverbed Graham is unexpectedly beamed in to complete Albarn’s sentence. It’s one of the record’s true hairs-on-the-back of the neck moments and it serves to perfectly capture the musical alchemy that exists when the pair are in each other’s company. With Coxon and Street shaping the songs prior to Albarn crafting the words, it’s interesting that the aching guitar of ‘My Terracotta Heart’ perfectly matches a lyric exploring the past troubles of the pair’s relationship. They have created something that is as beautiful as any Albarn heartache song has ever previously sounded.
‘Lonesome Street’, ‘Go Out’ and ‘I Broadcast’, the album’s most brash moments, seem like logical evolutions of moments from the band’s past. The first of that list straddles the sound of ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘Blur’, while the song that offered the first taste of ‘The Magic Whip’, ‘Go Out’, occupies a ground somewhere between ‘On Your Own’ and ‘Music Is My Radar’ which, as any fool knows, can only be a very fine thing indeed. The last of that triumvirate is a wonderfully chaotic, riff-driven thing, seemingly specifically designed for joyous pogoing and wild leaping from Albarn when performed live. It captures the emphatic rattle that some of the non-album tracks from the ‘Think Tank’ era were aiming for but never quite achieved. It underlines, hopefully for the final time, that Blur only really work with Coxon there to elevate them to greatness.
‘Ong Ong’ is a quite staggeringly effective earworm, all la-la-la-la-las, looped handclap percussion and the line “I wanna be with you” in its chorus. It’s a wonderfully simple pleasure, reigniting the mass-singalong knack that served the band so well whenever performing ‘Tender’ during previous reunion shows. Most intriguing is ‘Ice Cream Man’, with repetitive bleeps and burbles taking the place of actual chimes and a lyric which slowly evolves into Albarn’s memories of the Tiananmen Square protests. Lyrically and musically varied, it is a perfect encapsulation of what ‘The Magic Whip’ has to offer.
In returning, Blur have progressed. This is not a band revisiting past glories, indeed they’ve said recently that they felt there was no scope to do further gigs without new music to play. Shorn of expectation and match fit in the middle of a long tour, four friends found each other again.