Blur – The Magic Whip
Whither now the Britpop refugee? It’s been eleven years and at least two reconciliations since Blur last released a record. In a world where ‘90s reunions are less of a headline-grabbing surprise than a nodding inevitability, do they resemble their own tribute act or stake new ground? Is this the Blur of Pyramid stage encores or Moroccan-flavoured introspection?
The Magic Whip, it seems, lies somewhere in between the Blur of old and new. Or more accurately, between Coxon and Albarn. Graham Coxon’s reinstatement into the band as lead guitarist, after a messy exit midway through their last studio album, has ensured full-bodied, unambiguous guitar riffs can rub vigorously against Damon Albarn's electronic bells and whistles. Both have imported the influence of solo projects to make Blur 2.0 a fascinating if somewhat uneven new soup.
Lonesome Street, the best example of this blend, opens the album in rambunctious, confident fashion, teeming with boyish whistles and la-la-las vocals. That auspicious early promise of summery singalongs doesn’t, alas, quite materialise. Perhaps a change of pace is apposite for a band with a median age of 47 – opera writing and cheese farming must mellow even the most feral hearts – but those hoping for an album’s worth of festival anthems will be disappointed.
As suddenly as track two, Blur pump the brakes in listless fashion with New World Towers (referencing a skyscraper in Hong Kong, where most of the album was written), all pensive and measured, before flip-flopping back to workmanlike grunge for third track Go Out.
We see, then, something of a dichotomy, zigzagging between tones and moods, almost song-to-song. Pyongyang is enigmatic and full of brooding; I Broadcast has a boisterous swagger about it, like a scruffy teenage rebel; minor-keyed There Are Too Many Of Us seems to warn of a looming population crisis, with lyrics like “We all believe in praying / For our immortality“ set to military percussion and a worried strings section.
Elsewhere, background bleeps in Ice Cream Man and the unashamedly pop-inflected Ghost Ship mesh nicely with Coxon’s sprightly strumming. Closing track Mirrorball, ending the record on a whimper over a bang, features lyrical refrains (“hold close to me...”) which make Albarn sound vulnerable, like he just needs a hug.
Album highlight Ong Ong, on the other hand, is an ode to insurmountable optimism. Like Tender or Girls & Boys before it, Ong Ong is gloriously unfussy and all the better for it. It boasts a gently inviting three-chord plod of acoustic guitars so simple your nan could play it, a cheeky piano bridge to raise a smile, and a chorus (“I wanna be with you”, repeated) that all of Hyde Park will be belting along to, come their headline summer gig. It's when the riffs seem plucked straight from the annals of 1997 that Blur seem to remember how to have fun.