Album Review: Blur – The Magic Whip

Pretty swish.

Pretty swish: Blur have another crack at it. (photo: diymag.com)

Blur

The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

1 Magic WhipFor one of the most keenly-anticipated returns of the decade (let alone this year), there’s little about The Magic Whip that gives away its status as a comeback for one of the most beloved British bands of the past two decades. Aside from a handful of propulsive moments, Blur’s eighth album skirts ceremony and cuts straight to projecting the murky vision of its authors, all pomp and circumstance dispelled in a swirl of spaced-out melancholy. It’s an album of textures and moods rather than a sure-footed collection of fizzing pop, and it takes several listens to get a handle on its character.

Given its stop-start gestation, it’s pretty amazing that The Magic Whip exists at all. Recorded on the fly in Hong Kong, and eventually moulded into shape by Graham Coxon and producer Stephen Street, The Magic Whip lacks an unambiguous stamp of identity, Blur’s style now infused with shades of the 2000s output of Coxon and Damon Albarn. Heard alongside its fellows, the contours of The Magic Whip sound much more malleable, less the work of a single group, and more the pooled offering of a team of artists. Consequently, it doesn’t hang together perfectly, but when all four members lock into a tight composition, the excitement surrounding its release is wholly justified.

Albarn recently put forward a complaint regarding what he terms “the selfie generation”: the current glut of self-absorbed singers projecting their personalities outwards, instead of reflecting wider topics. Tracing back his own lineage, one can appreciate Albarn’s point. Parklife was arguably the definitive reaction to Cool Britannia; a response equally intoxicated and overwhelmed by the rocketing excesses of the period. 13 and Think Tank picked through the ensuing hangover, bound up in a state of millennial tension and rueful disillusion. Twelve years on from the latter, The Magic Whip is hardly a manifesto, but it often dives headfirst into the confusion, jargon, and urban alienation that has come to dominate the 2010s. ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ and ‘New World Towers’ peer through the sea of smartphones and skyscrapers at suffocating grey skies and overpopulated streets teeming with unbalanced lives. Both are among the album’s best moments, cutting out melodrama in favour of deadpan, weary reportage. Albarn’s grave delivery of the former’s title refrain is stark and plain-spoken, its lack of overt humanity both unsettling and appealing.

Even in their catchiest moments, these songs are underpinned by the sense that modern life is still rubbish. Album opener ‘Lonesome Street’ is chock-full of charisma, driven by the thumping, twanging charm of their mid-90s vintage and completely saturated with hooks, but Albarn’s words temper the mood from jubilance. Sonically, it’s a red herring, but it’s thematically in key with The Magic Whip’s preoccupation with dislocation. ‘Go Out’ is a brilliantly groaning mess, a cousin of 13’s ‘Bugman’, but with that song’s psychotic exhilaration reduced to a polluted cough of exhausted vocals and lurching bass notes. Coxon wreaks merry havoc with his distortion pedals, and the sticky chorus is largely composed of tired moans; naturally a prime fit for lead single. The “cold sore / high score” punchline of the tremendous ‘I Broadcast’ could allude to the warped view of Facebook Likes as digital currency, and though the sweet singalong of ‘Ong Ong’ is more hopeful, it still hints at a yearning for retreat: “I wanna be with you.”

The remainder of the album wears its fatigue on its sleeve, and this may be where those hoping for a return to brash form are left cold. Even the ballads take a few plays to sink in; ‘My Terracotta Heart’ requires patience for its full weight to unspool, and ‘Pyongyang’ rests resolutely bleak and ghostly at the album’s close. While it sounds hugely ungrateful to say so given the album’s contextThe Magic Whip sounds as though it would benefit from the snipping of one or two cuts. Pleasant though it is, the twinkling ‘Ghost Ship’ sounds particularly jarring, more suited to the sun-kissed haze of a Gorillaz record.

The best manner in which to approach Blur’s return is to take note of Albarn and Coxon’s summative statements. Coxon has described this album as an exploration of “sci-fi folk”, whereas Albarn was very taken with producing a work of “dysto-pop-ia”. Viewed under this lens, The Magic Whip seems much more convincing a prospect. It sits uncomfortably, its skewed pacing and general dearth of up-tempo moments resulting in a restless experience, but its sprawling sonics and Albarn’s compelling vignettes somehow render it intoxicating. It nags and itches at the ears, pulling one back into its embrace and shedding its secrets with each listen. Rather than a triumphant, assured return, it’s a fragmented treatise on fragmentary times, and in some sense, that’s exactly what Blur have always excelled at.

“Before you log out / Hold close to me.”

06/05/15

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Posted on May 6, 2015, in The Music World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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