Blur ‘The Magic Whip’ – Review

28 Apr

When a beloved band returns after a fifteen year break, expectations are bound to be a little unreasonably high. Optimistic fans will be hoping Blur pick up where Parklife left off fifteen years ago, while even the more pessimistic end of the fanbase will be hoping for something of ‘Think Tank’s’s quality. But let’s be realistic. It’s been ten years since Damon Albarn had a hit, and his last few projects (Dr Dee, ‘Everyday Robots’, The Good the bad and the Queen, Monkey the Opera) have been drab and unspectacular affairs. Graham Coxon’s output since leaving Blur 15 years ago has been solid but modest, rarely supporting the audacious claim that he’s the best British guitarist of our generation. As for Alex and Dave, well, their adventures away from music, in the fields of Cheese and Politics respectively, have kept them busy, and relatively quiet since Blur left the scene.

And so in reality, expecting the band to come out of the gates like it’s 1995 is at best unfair and at worst damaging. Remember when we dreamt of Harrison For getting out the fedora and bull-whip for another Indiana Jones? Then came Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The last thing we want is for Damon and co to pull out the fred perrys only to realise they fit as badly as Harrison’s leather jacket. Sure, their comeback shows have been spectacular, but how could they not be?! Get a bunch of thirtysomethings in a field, get them drunk, play some quality tunes and let them re-live their youth – you couldn’t go wrong. But there is a difference between doing that, and making a decent album.

So let’s calm down. Let’s be fair to them and our memories. ‘The Magic Whip’ is what a rational, logical, clear minded fan might expect. It’s the work of four talented musicians, who now lead separate lives, coming together again to re-connect in a way that makes sense on a personal, as much as a musical level. It’s slightly awkward at points, rarely fluid or magical and often sleepy but nonetheless it does display a remarkable bond and synergy that has endured despite the long break. And thankfully, it isn’t hopelessly nostalgic; it casts an eye to the past but doesn’t fix it there. It’s very much an album by Blur as they are in 2015, warts and all, even if they aren’t exactly as we would like them to be.

And so Damon still has an unfortunate proclivity for doom and gloom lyrics and overcast melodies, Graham’s riffs are a little too cookie cutter and Dave’s mid paced plod sounds a tad too much like the work of a middle aged lawyer – which it is (for what it’s worth, Alex’s bass lines are as elastic and bright as ever). But by coming together they do a lot to cancel out the negatives, and actually strengthen a connection that most bands would kill for.

Left to his own devices Damon would certainly be content to make another ‘Everyday Robots’, based on his contributions here. He dwells vaguely on the symbols and signifiers of terror and discontent in the modern age, rarely doing anything other than scraping the surface of ‘big topics’ – where did his sense of humour go? But anyway, Graham’s riffs add colour and drama to the sometimes dreary arrangements, while the rhythm section is a nicely human antidote to Albarn’s recent glitchy beat tendency. It also seems the very idea of being in Blur again (a group that wrote number one hits remember) has rejuvenated some kind of pop instinct in Albarn, at least to an extent. The gleeful ‘OngOng’ is all drippy piano licks, church choirs, major chords and smiles. ‘I wanna be with you’ he swoons, optimistic and enthusiastic for the first time in what feels like ages. Likewise, ‘Lonesome Street’, ‘I Broadcast’ and ‘Go Out’ recapture some of that bubbly pop vibe that they used to have bottled.

Even on the weirder tracks, like the paranoid ‘New World Towers’ and the snappy ‘Ice Cream’, Graham and Alex manage to tease some fun hooks out of some yawning songs, over-riding some of Damon’s persistent cynicism. But then again, that cynicism is equally important in stopping Graham’s naturally insular, nostalgic retro rock tendencies from taking over.
Blur never sound entirely like the band of old, nor do they entirely sound like a Blur for 2015. In its weaker moments ‘The Magic Whip’ sounds like the result of four guys spending a long weekend jamming to no real end. Which is exactly how it came in to being. And so there is no real drive or purpose on display, no obvious design and a sorry lack of cohesive, clear minded song writing.

But in moments we are given aesthetic sweeties to remind us of the good old days. ‘Lonesome Street’s guitar has a tone that is remincitant of ‘Parklife’, whilst Coxon’s vocals on that track have the same Syd Barret feel of ‘Starwhaped.’ Likewise, the backing vocals on ‘Go Out’ have all the ‘Ohs’ and ‘awws’ in all the right places, just as they were on ‘The Great Escape.’ ‘I-Broadcast’ has the chugging punk vibe of ‘Advert’ and ‘Globe Alone’ whilst ‘I Thought I Was a Spaceman’ could have been taken from ‘13’.

Sounds. Backing vocals. Guitar tones. Sometimes just an unidentifiable feeling. These are the things that very briefly make you feel the things you felt the first time you heard ‘For Tomorrow’ or ‘End of the Century’ or ‘Song 2’ – whatever your entry point was. I say this as someone who only really got in to the band fairly recently, and I can only imagine how somebody who experienced Blur first time around will feel upon hearing these songs – I imagine Goosebumps and hairs on necks may be involved. But they are only brief, sensory thrills that simply trigger older, better feelings and memories. ‘The Magic Whip’ isn’t stuck in the past, but it does rely on it a little bit to hold your attention. But Blur do enough, and do it so naturally, to suggest that they do have it in them to make something more significant – something classic. If this is what 5 days jamming and a whole lot of Stephen Street tinkering achieved, then I wonder what would be possible if some serious forethought, song writing and effort were involved?



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