Be honest, nobody expected there to actually be another Blur album. Sixteen years since their last as a four-piece (1999’s ’13’), twelve since ‘Think Tank’ and its bittersweet closer ‘Battery In Your Leg’ - none of the signs were especially great. There’d been the big comeback, a triumphant jaunt from Colchester Railway Museum to the Main Stage of Glastonbury celebrating one of Britain’s very best bands. There’d been the second coming, with that last night in Hyde Park in the summer of 2012. There’d even been the odd spark of new music - ‘Fool’s Day’, ‘The Puritan’ and ‘Under The Westway’. But the noises from Damon Albarn weren’t great. Even at his most positive, it never really felt like a new Blur album was top of his to-do list. When a week long recording session in a tour break was mentioned, it seemed there may be hope, but before long that faded away too. Chances were, Blur were done.
Keeping a surprise in 2015 is hard. Keeping the shock comeback of one of the biggest acts of the last quarter of a century quiet should be near unheard of. The reclusive David Bowie may have managed similar, but he wasn’t operating in the front line anymore - he could scheme well away from the limelight. The members of Blur were hardly playing wallflowers. Albarn spent 2014 promoting a solo album, working on a musical and headlining festivals - not the place you’d expect someone to plan the secret return of the year from. But then, Damon wasn’t the one doing the plotting. Not really.
If anyone brought Blur back, it appears only fair their virtuoso guitarist Graham Coxon should take the plaudits. The same man who found himself out of the band back in 2003 returned to those 2013 session tapes to find gold.
“We had some downtime,” Coxon told Zane Lowe at the launch event for ‘The Magic Whip’. “We had a cancellation when we were out in Hong Kong. And so we thought we’d find a few days to relocate into a studio to record our stuff there. We decided to have a play, really.”
“We didn’t really have much stuff, at all,” Damon added. “It felt like it was back to the way we recorded when we first started doing stuff together. It wasn’t a flash studio. It was pretty claustrophobic. It was really hot, it was June. We didn’t get anything finished. And I don’t know, after that we went to Jakarta, we did a gig and we didn’t see each other for months. We did another few gigs in South America but during that time, I think the whole thing had dissipated, hadn’t happened. It was fun, it was a nice few days, but nothing concrete came out.”
“Will ‘The Magic Whip’ actually sound like, y’know, Blur?”
Be honest, that’s the question we were all asking when we first heard Blur were going to release a new album. And yes, ‘Go Out’ did allay many of those fears pretty quickly, but ‘Lonesome Street’ doesn’t ignore its duties as an opening track because of it.
Put bluntly, Blur haven’t sounded this much like Blur in the better part of two decades. While never really risking becoming one of their huge, era defining singles, from its opening stabs it quickly finds a familiar rhythm. Audible eye-rolls, sparkling disco balls - at no point does it feel to be growing old disgracefully, but the 5:14 to East Grinstead nails it. Yep, Blur are definitely back.
Where ‘Lonesome Street’ is familiar, ‘New World Towers’ is something a little different. An almost looping melody, Coxon has described it as his take on ‘Greensleeves’. Piano keys and acoustic refrains smoulder warmly beneath beeping, buzzing, yet understated futuristic gubbins. All the time, Albarn’s vocals find their own smooth, soulful groove. On paper, it sounds bizarre. In reality, it’s a slow-burning standout.
The first song to appear from ‘The Magic Whip’, it’s that chemistry - the magic, sometimes challenging, invisible line that’s always run between Coxon and Albarn - that bleeds right through ‘Go Out’. The straining feedback, squelching riffs and general ‘guitar stuff’, thematically it may sit somewhere between ‘Blur’ and ‘13. Experimental and immediate, direct and obtuse, it’s brilliant and most certainly Blur.
“I was sitting on the sofa,” Coxon recounted. “Other people making music, they get on the radio. I hate sitting there not doing much, with everyone else getting told that they’re great. So I was thinking, ‘What about this stuff that felt really good in the studio?’
“It felt positive. We had fun. We were all together in this same room, this hot little room. It was casual, it was just something we did off our own backs. And I thought it’d be great to go back after it fermented for a while and have a look, go to this chap we knew very well to actually go over it. It was quite an overwhelming prospect. We were - for want of a better word - jamming. There was some sonic landscaping being created.”
“‘Damon, can I have a chat?’ I said, ‘Do you mind if I have a look at all this music, to see if there’s anything worth pursuing?’ I liken it to somebody’s notes, scrawling over a big book, pages falling out. I just think we needed someone to organise it. So we slung it over to Stephen [Street].”
And that, as they say, was that; a bunch of demos, jam sessions and outtakes from an overheated studio in Hong Kong started their journey to becoming the most anticipated album by a British band in years. Simple, really.
On the surface, ‘Ice Cream Man’ sounds harmless enough - bleeping, bubbling electronic sounds underpin stories of vans parked at the end of the road, full of screwballs and umbrellas to shade from the sun. Underneath, though, there are even chillier undertones. “I was only 21, when I watched it on the TV,” Albarn recalls.
The longest track on ‘The Magic Whip’, ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ comes in at well over six minutes. Building to a midway explosion of dramatic galactic sounding stabs, from there Coxon’s guitar takes hold, buzzing, twisting, bending and turning under constant oriental chimes and his own vocal refrain.
If you’re looking for ‘the banger’ - this is it. ‘I Broadcast’ is, by a country mile, the most aggressive, immediate track on ‘The Magic Whip’. Recalling everything from ‘Advert’ to ‘Jubilee’, lyrically it concerns itself with the connected world - where every moment is broadcast for no real reason other than it can be, and everyone knows everything about everyone else. Bratty and brilliant in equal measures.
As with any act who’ve been around for more than a quarter of a decade, Blur are a band with more than one dimension. From the shoegazy jangle of ‘Leisure’ through the Britpop templates of ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ and ‘Parklife’, the Stateside lo-fi fuzz of ‘Blur’ or the more experimental moments of ‘13’ - they’ve long since evolved past the cheeky chappies on old Top of the Pops clips to a genuinely fascinating, musically diverse group.
It shouldn’t need saying that ‘The Magic Whip’ is no different. Its main ideas recorded in a week, brought together by Coxon and Stephen Street, with Albarn’s vocals added - it’s remarkable that Blur’s eighth album is even remotely coherent. That it manages to duke it out with their very best is something else altogether.
A calmer beast than ‘Blur’ or ‘13’, not as concerned with the sugar rush as their mid 90s incarnation, ‘The Magic Whip’ has a groove of its own. In the last decade and a half, Albarn and Coxon have only further developed their own distinct musical identities. Previous full-lengths would pull one way or another, their differences and juxtapositions producing a spark that drove Blur to their highest heights. Here, they find themselves synchronising in near perfect harmony.
An echo of Albarn’s ‘Everyday Robots’ here, a wave of Coxon’s ‘A+E’ guitars there - there’s even the occasional hint of ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ - but none of these overpower the fact that - recorded in a few days or not - ‘The Magic Whip’ really is a proper Blur album, and a proper Blur album that still finds itself at the very top of the class.
Here’s where things get personal. Coxon has already has admitted that, lyrically, ‘My Terracotta Heart’ is about the band’s relationships with each other - especially between Albarn and himself. “When we were more like brothers, but that was years ago,” Damon sings. “Is something broke inside me, because at the moment I’m lost and feeling that I don’t know if I’m losing you again?” Coupled with Coxon’s perfectly judged guitars, and a perfectly pitched rhythm section - it ends on a harmonised vocal. Close to magical.
Over a military beat, the lyrical context of ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ seems obvious - there literally are too many people. Becoming increasingly intense, with talk of “terror on a loop elsewhere,” the marching, foreboding tone uses synthesisers where Coxon’s buzz-saw guitars would usually sit. Strings play on the nerve ends, tension rises. This is Blur at their most effective.
Thankfully, that tension is dialled right down for ‘Ghost Ship’. Laid back, musically it’s a cruise ship holiday on the sun loungers. Another moment closer to what would be expected of Gorillaz, it swaps out the underlying intensity of Albarn’s cartoon creations for Blur’s organic soul. Pleasingly different.
“Graham came to me, said ‘I think we’ve got something here’,” Albarn recounted. “I was like, ‘Brilliant. Go and have a look at it’. I was busy doing what I was doing and I came back, they played me what they’d done and I was like, ‘Oh no, this is really good’.
It’s at this moment the penny drops. Whatever anyone involved wanted to do with their next few months, it’s out of their hands. These demos are too good. Whichever way it’s spun, the material demands attention. Blur are back.
“It was very mixed emotions for me,” Damon continued. “I really felt at the end of those last gigs we did that it was the end - that was the end. Not for any sort of heavy reason, it’d run its course. There was no way we could do another gig without another record.”
“The period in Hong Kong,” drummer Dave Rowntree remembered. “Everything felt right. We’d gone back to do these shows in places we’d never been before. We weren’t thinking about making a record. There was just suddenly this opportunity to get back in the studio together. Rather than trying to make a big comeback single, we were playing together loads because we were touring.”
“We actually sounded like a band at that point,” Albarn agreed. “It was accidental. In a sense, there’s not been an effort towards this record. It’s been completely natural and spontaneous. I was just singing, really, lyrically, what was coming into my head. And because I was in Hong Kong, I was just singing about things that happened on the journey to the studio, what happened last night - everything was related to being in that quite claustrophobic island with millions and millions of people.”
London has long been the name written through Blur’s musical stick of rock. Though there’s been the odd French dalliance, the occasional Icelandic adventure, the British capital stands as the main character in so much of their musical output. ‘The Magic Whip’ doesn’t write it out entirely (East Grinstead represent - Ed), but in heading outside their usual haunts, an evolution seemed inevitable.
“They played [the songs] to me,” Damon explained, “and I think I had to go back to Australia to finish off my [solo] tour. At that point, everyone was going, ‘There is a record here’. And I knew there was a record here, but I hadn’t found any lyrics for it. I can hear loads of stuff, but it doesn’t make much sense at the moment. So I thought, ‘Well, I’d better go back to Hong Kong’. It was on the way back from Australia - Christmas time, really. I wanted to get home. I didn’t really wanna go somewhere else. But I did. I’m really glad I did, because it gave me a really interesting set of things to write about. I was remembering the time I was there. It was literally 24 hours after they’d scrubbed all the streets clean of the protests, you wouldn’t know anything had happened. That was very fresh in my mind from watching it on the television.”
“It gave me an opportunity to write about my visits in North Korea. I’d written loads of stuff. There’s a song called ‘Pyongyang’. It felt like it was near enough to Hong Kong. I made sure everything was about us, how we felt, our relationship with each other. Then I had to sing it…”
You’d be a brave person to produce anything that mixes popular culture with North Korea right now, but that doesn’t seem to bother Damon. Quite right too. Chiming bells, a dark, foreboding bass line; “The pink light that bathes the great leaders is fading,” Albarn offers. In truth, ‘Pyongyang’ doesn’t concern itself with the direct, political approach - instead focusing on a land of cherry trees, silver rockets and rising suns. In concentrating on the place, and not the obvious angles others would choose, it ends up as something infinitely more effective.
It’s fair to say ‘Ong Ong’ won’t win any awards for complex songwriting, but when it comes to raw, grin-inducing positivity, it’ll be hard to match. ‘The Magic Whip”s sing-a-long song, it doesn’t even need to get to the second chorus before the refrain takes hold. While ‘I Broadcast’ may kick the door down in the raw immediacy stakes, it’s ‘Ong Ong’ that you’ll still be singing in the shower six months from now.
At sub four minutes, ‘Mirrorball’ isn’t an epic closer in length, but soaked in reverb and echoing percussion, it knows how to do its job. “Hold close to me,” Albarn pleads, as woozy strings bend. A fitting full stop for ‘The Magic Whip’, but hopefully not the final chapter for Blur.
For all the constraints of its immaculate conception, the biggest hurdle in ‘The Magic Whip”s path was always going to be time at its other extreme. All those years since the band last stepped into the studio; even longer since those sessions were helmed by their long-term collaborator Stephen Street. There’s no shock that Albarn may have had a few nerves.
After all, how many bands make a big comeback and go on to record something really great? Many smarter peers simply decided it wasn’t worth the bother. This year, Sleater-Kinney returned with an album that’s out of this world, but they made sure the magic was still there behind the scenes before committing. Blur had already bolted six years previously. As Damon said - without new material, there could be no more gigs. Without more gigs, there’d be no more band. Absolutely everything was on the line.
But, with time, also comes a chance to clean the palette. Were ‘The Magic Whip’ to have followed straight on from ‘13’, or even ‘Think Tank’, the relative lack of obvious, classic Blur singles would no doubt have been mentioned. No, there’s no ‘Tender’, ‘Coffee and TV’ or even ‘Out of Time’ here, but that doesn’t mean there’s no immediacy.
Opener ‘Lonesome Street’ has that typical Blur rhythm - a reassuring echo that couldn’t be further from tired. ‘I Broadcast’, too, knows its roots. The most in your face track on the album, it sits somewhere between ‘Modern Life is Rubbish”s ‘Advert’ and the back half of ‘Parklife’, all punky riffs and acerbic critique. Lead track ‘Go Out’ stalks the gaps between ‘Blur’ and ‘13’, while ‘Ong Ong’ and its simplistic refrain is nothing but liquid sunshine; even the darkest, most cynical souls will struggle to hold back a smile.
Elsewhere, it’s closer to new ground. No, Blur aren’t pushing the boundaries of Music with a capital M, but they’re still finding somewhere fresh to inhabit for themselves. While ‘Ice Cream Man’ still manages to trigger the odd memory, its bubbling, beeping, laid-back swagger is closer to Gorillaz than Blur. ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ moves from oriental undertones to dramatic stabs, while ‘Ghost Ship’ is Blur - but on a Caribbean cruise. And yes, it does still work.
From the military march of ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’, with its proclamation of “terror on a loop elsewhere”, to woozy closer ‘Mirrorball’, it’s these tracks that reward the persistent listener. As always, in later day Blur’s deepest cuts come their biggest triumphs. Standout ‘My Terracotta Heart’ shows it best. As Albarn’s vocal hits its lilting sweet spot, Coxon’s guitars work their understated magic. Yes, Blur went away. No, they’ve not come back to rehash the hits. But on that ninth listen, with the lights off, they’re a band still able to find new emotional triggers their contemporaries have yet to discover. Their magic remains as strong as ever.
‘The Magic Whip’ is released on Parlophone on 27th April and can be pre-ordered here. Blur headline the Isle of Wight Festival on 13th June and play British Summer Time in Hyde Park on 20th June.
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