A review of the new Blur album.
The Magic Whip
Having spent a prominent part of their career writing about British customs and social behaviour, it must be with some discomfort that Blur now find themselves a British custom. Since guitarist Graham Coxon rejoined the band in 2009 after seven years exile, the band’s huge summer gigs in London’s Hyde Park (in 2009, at the Olympics closing ceremony in 2012 and now again this coming June) have become a focal point for diverse British tribes. Britpop nostalgists, groups of 30something “lads”, and less gregarious souls who identify with Blur songs about vulnerable British types all gather there in festival mood.
These days, Blur’s own concerns and lifestyles are far less parochial. In the past 20 years singer/principal songwriter Damon Albarn has rebooted world music for a new audience, and written two operas, one in Chinese. After forays into TV presenting, bassist Alex James is now an artisanal cheesemaker on nodding terms with David Cameron. Only drummer Dave Rowntree (who retrained as a solicitor after Blur’s ostensible demise in 2003) and Graham Coxon (who lives a resourceful but scattershot life just out of the spotlight) display some of the idiosyncrasy and quiet desperation of the classic Blur character.
Seeking, it appears, to make up for the erratic behavior that saw him expelled from Blur in the first place, it is Coxon who is the engine of this new Blur album. When bad weather forced cancellation of a Japanese festival at which the band was due to appear in 2013, Blur were marooned for several days in Hong Kong, but instead of simply relaxing, they chose to book studio time. What emerged were several promising demo fragments that Coxon – a talented arranger – then took it upon himself to develop, with the assistance of producer Stephen Street. After several months of work, Coxon reconvened the band for additional recording, with Albarn contributing vocals at the start of this year.
The Magic Whip is a good record, certainly, but it does prompt some questions about in what sort of way a group like Blur might be said to meaningfully exist these days. Of the music released so far, both opener “Lonesome Street” and third track “Go Out” are reminiscent of the upbeat guitar band Blur were somewhere around their breakthrough album (i)Modern Life Is Rubbish(i) in 1992: all suit jackets, social reportage, and band-as-a-gang. The videos for both, however, feature, respectively, a Chinese amateur dance troupe and a lady making some ice cream in her kitchen. Cute, but they don’t exactly speak of a group completely committed to the programme, or even interested in being in the same room at the same time. At one wistful moment in the album, Albarn recalls a time when “we were more like brothers/But that was years ago…”
Which seems a shame. In the mid-1990s, it fell to Oasis to lay claim to being heirs of The Beatles, but members of the band came and went so fast, you’d barely had time to warm to the idea of Scott McCloud when Matt Deighton came along to replace him. Who? Who? Well, exactly. Blur, however, with their identifiable personalities and amusing foibles seemed to adhere most closely to that Fab paradigm. If you replaced a piece, it simply wouldn’t be the same thing any more.
As it is, the story of Blur after 2003 is one that can be condensed into bumper sticker wisdom: old Britpop bands don’t die – they just diversify. While Blur was formerly the vehicle for most of his creative ideas, the success of his extra-curricular projects has encouraged Albarn – the main compositional talent of the band – to pursue more. Coxon, whose electric guitar gave the band character and heft was left to make solo albums which unleashed his considerable firepower on insubstantial targets. The others went to whey and conveyancing.
The Magic Whip projects some of that diffuseness. Blur have historically been a band with a strong sense of place, be that the British home counties or (as on their previous album Think Tank) a north African/middle eastern soundworld. Here, it seems the band is trying the same kind of thing, with Hong Kong. Albarn found room in his schedule to return to the city to seek inspiration for his lyrics, but in spite of a song called “Ong Ong”, which sounds as if it might have escaped from (i)Abbey Road(i), the Kowloon-referencing reggae of “Ghost Ship” and the Chinese-sounding strings section on the closer “Mirrorball”, it doesn’t quite come off.
What instead is more strongly evoked is travel and by extension, rootlessness. In two tracks we’ve travelled from East Grinstead to Hollywood. By track five (the very good “Thought I Was A Spaceman”) we’re back in Hyde Park. When the band essayed this kind of anomie in transit on “Look Inside America” from 1997’s (i)Blur(i), it sounded like artless rock star whining. Now, it sounds like a band exploring, after a long and eventful time away from making new music, who they are what they might collectively have to say.
At times you could conclude that was not much, and that we are mainly listening to tracks that didn’t quite make the cut from Damon Albarn’s excellent solo album (i)Everyday Robots(i). There, Albarn explored the idea of personal remoteness in a time of supposed heightened connectivity via social media, and some of the language of that investigation is certainly present. There’s a reference to “logging on” in the moving second track “New World Towers” and in “Mirrorball”, to logging out. Likewise some of the intense synthesizer textures characterize a production by Richard Russell, with whom Albarn worked on his own album. In such moments, Blur seem rather surplus to requirements, uncertain about what to contribute to this (i)fait accompli(i).
Still, this is still a group which abundantly knows how to sequence an album. A particularly strong section of The Magic Whip begins with the boisterous kind of throwaway (see also: “Crazy Beat”, “Bank Holiday”) which has traditionally provided a change of pace on otherwise melodic Blur albums. “I Broadcast” sounds very much like a wry look at cocaine use on a promotional tour, and feels very much banged out in the moment, with Coxon quoting the post- hardcore group Slint in his guitar line, while samples of Albarn’s laughter are woven into the recording. This lively outburst then gives way to the more contemplative wound-licking of “My Terracotta Heart”.
True enough, this again feels quite Albarn solo and darkly contemplative, but here Coxon and Alex James both integrate themselves beautifully with the electronic essence of the composition, Coxon’s guitar line an entropic highpoint of the record. The peak of the record comes with the next song, “There Are Too Many Of Us”, in which a synthesizer line reminiscent of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” introduces a piece of melancholic, Malthusian rock.
Over a brisk march, Albarn assumes an omniscient view, acknowledging the hopes and dreams of successive generations for happiness and contentment. Still, he notes that this means a proliferation of people in identical suburbs, all of us “in tiny houses”, unable to extricate ourselves from the social patterns of our parents. It feels like a classic Blur song, but deepened with social responsibility rather than jokey reportage. In the video, the band are all filmed crammed in a small studio together, to celebrate the moment that Britpop finally attained the gravity of (i)Jude The Obscure(i).
Given the band’s diverse interests, their separate lives and growing age, it would be ridiculous to expect a Blur album made after a gap of 12 years to pick up where the band left off. What’s most impressive about The Magic Whip is its candour: the occasional unevenness in tone, and its unwillingness to try and turn the clock back. This isn’t the old gang getting back together in their old haunts, but an honest reflection of the many different places where Blur are at today. Consider it an encouraging conference call – which tentatively proposes more such meetings in the future.