Album Review: Blur – “The Magic Whip”

magicwhip

When Blur reunited in 2009, there was much speculation on whether the group would release a new album. There were a couple stand-alone singles, rumors the band was recording with William Orbit, and a news report that a recording session had been scuttled. It seemed that the band was just content with touring until the surprise announcement of The Magic Whip in February.

The Magic Whip had an interesting genesis. Much of the record was recorded over a five day stretch in Hong Kong, a little under two years ago. Singer Damon Albarn was unable to complete  lyrics and the recordings were shelved. Late last year, guitarist Graham Coxon revisited the recordings and recompiled them with producer Stephen Street, and Albarn completed lyrical and vocal work earlier this year.

The album sees the band reunited with Street, who worked with them their first five albums and  oversaw the band’s progression from a dance-rock act to Britpop icons and through their experiments with lo-fi, electronic music and American indie rock.

On The Magic Whip, Blur revisit many of the styles they had explored in the path while continuing to blaze a new sonic path for themselves.

Lead track “Lonesome Street” is the band’s most immediate and straightforward pop moment in over a decade and a half. It doesn’t have much of a chorus, but it makes up for that with an abundance of hooks and a rare appearance on lead vocals from Coxon.

The rest of the record alternates between downtempo electronics and straight alternative rock. Songs such as “Thought I Was a Spaceman,” “Ice Cream Man” and “New World Towers” are built on top of glitchy trip-hop beats, but are still distinctly Blur songs that never feel like they wander into Gorillaz territory. Instead, these tracks seem to harken back to the band’s Think Tank-era, but replace that records African influences with Magic Whip’s urban Asian theme. Out of these songs, “New World Towers” is the highlight, building from a piano-drive opening to cascade of drum loops and electronics.

Another highlight is “I Broadcast,” It’s the most rock-oriented of all the album’s electronic songs, recalling the band’s 2012 single “The Puritan,” but greatly improving on that song’s sonic palate. The track is highlighted by new wave and power pop influenced guitar stabs from Graham Coxon. It’s an immediate highlight upon first listen, and the band would be wise to push it out as a single.

“Go Out” was a surprise choice as the first single from the record. Loud, noisy and, abrasive, it signals the return of Coxon more than the three standalone tracks the band has released since their reunion. His wiry (and indeed, Wire-y) guitar is all over the song and recalls many of the cuts from their American indie-influenced self-titled record. It’s not as immediate as many of their previous singles, and perhaps it would have been a better idea to introduce the record with “Lonesome Street” or “I Broadcast,” but the song definitely gives the best idea of the record’s democratic and genre-hopping feel.

“Ong Ong” is another choice cut, a sunny pop song with a delightful chorus that harkens back to the band’s Parklife era.

Less successful is “Ghost Ship,” which has a slight reggae beat that doesn’t quite seem to gel with the rest of the record. Coxon’s guitar, this time appearing with a beachy tone, is again a highlight but it doesn’t quite save the song from being one of the record’s lesser cuts. Ultimately though, it has enough positives that doesn’t subtract from what is otherwise a tremendous album.

The Magic Whip is a tight album, and it’s great to see that the band is this on form after nearly 15 years away from the studio in this configuration. It seems to have been a good choice for the band not to rush into studio during their initial 2009 reunion. The time in between has allowed the band to gel; They sound as good as they’ve ever been, and the difference between the band on record with Coxon and without is noticeable. While Think Tank does not deserve the reputation it has received, the music seemed less immediate without Coxon and the band’s concerts weren’t nearly as good without him.

If you’re a fan of Blur, you will not be disappointed by The Magic Whip. It has something for fans of every era of the group and proves to be another terrific reunion record in a year that has already seen many terrific ones.
9/10

Ryan Gibbs is the music editor for The Young Folks. He is based in Newport, Rhode Island.