Blur celebrates its 27th anniversary this year. Let that sink in for a second. Now turn your gaze toward the elephant in the room: Are they still living in (as Liam Gallagher once put it so punningly) a “shite-life” instead of their mud, sweat, and tears Parklife? Don’t let the passing years discourage you, because it sounds like nothing has changed — as though Damon Albarn and his bandmates have been cryogenically frozen since they put out their last album in 2003. That doesn’t mean their eighth album, The Magic Whip, won’t still get the diehards slipping around in their own drool. Better great than never, right?
Everything on The Magic Whip sounds like the band put together every idea to warrant absolute comeback status. As a result, it feels like the bookend of a certain iteration of Blur. It’s the zenith of that first phase — the classic ‘90s lean-and-glare, floppy-hair-stare that saw the band swept into the rising tide of what was called Britpop from the corners of Colchester to London’s Primrose Hill. Blur knew its own strengths: unabashedly strong choruses about sex and drugs, melodies hammered on their guitars as if they were drums, and that sluggish charm in Albarn’s voice. They are not and have never been the most harmoniously agile or lyrically dexterous band, but when they’re typically Blur — let’s snatch their own line — “they all go hand in hand.”
To do right by The Magic Whip, it’s best to unpack the album’s significant baggage first: Blur is no longer dealing with a Britpop war or a domestic spat with previously exiled guitarists. Graham Coxon is back, as is producer Stephen Street; the band spent five days recording in Hong Kong during a tour break in 2013, sessions that Coxon insisted on organizing alongside Street despite Albarn’s view that the band “didn’t get anything finished.” Blur has played the closing ceremony at the Olympics and toured all over the world, journeying through cities they mention in their own lyrics. Now, they reunite full of remote ideas without sounding like they’re repeating the past or trying to forge a new future. They’re being as Blur as Blur can be in 2015.
Despite a few trivial and mostly unobtrusive additions to the instrumental palette, Blur revives old melodies by softening the focus on the new ones. True to form, there are some classic moments that would’ve thrived on their previous records: “My Terracotta Heart” is as incisive and propulsive as the best of Blur. It’s got a nice, leisurely demeanor, bassist Alex James stretching across nimble, brooding bass lines, which feel as reflective as the lyrics Albarn sings: “When we were more like brothers, but that was years ago.” Over a quiet, circular guitar line, he ups his emotional accessibility, reflecting on his relationship with Coxon while sharing homesickness riddled with anxiety. Yet it all squiggles into a perfectly odd pop song that’s as passive as it is endearing. The same goes for “Pyongyang”, a cheerfully charging procession of melodies that knots around strings and guitar abrasion, flashing back to “This Is a Low”. The beautiful, unguarded balladry proves an intriguing counterpoint to the oppressed North Korean city of the title.
Albarn is as capable of the soft narrative as he is the wallop of “Lonesome Street”. Keys and bass offer weight and texture, as if to unearth forgotten memories built on the go. This is the band’s entire sonic mind-map in one song, tuning back to the beginning of Blur with “ooh-ooh” affectations as sprightly and convincing as they used to sound. Drummer Dave Rowntree kicks through a scrim of clatter while his band twists deliriously above. The decay leaks into “Go Out”, gliding from warbling riffs and jittery beats into a sudden, triumphant, nostalgic smear. “To the local,” Albarn bellows, somehow wiring his rhythm with the feeling that the band is always on the verge of losing their minds, while the rest fortify the anxiety with unresolved guitar and bass lines. It feels like a snickering Britpopper walking a psych rock tightrope. They bring the same sort of control to the coquettish “Ong Ong”; the gentle track builds over three minutes and emerges carefree. Its archetypal beat will cause listeners to picture its creators singing to a crowd of beer-bellied friends with linked arms delivering perfect “la-la-la”s in tribute to Albarn.
From there, things get a little harder to place. The fractured opening of “New World Towers” unfolds with a wash of faint harmonies that amass from woozy, pockmarked synths. The song acts as a bridge between Albarn’s solo Everyday Robots and the moody tangents of his subsidiary project, The Good, the Bad & the Queen. He then cuts ties and swings across an entirely different cosmic digression during “Thought I Was a Spaceman”. This is Bowie in space, man, a daze of future’s past finding Blur floating above mankind, watching its slow demise.
If there’s another message here, it’s that ice cream melts. Part of the problem, it seems, is that when Blur gets restless, unspooling new tricks and tempos, The Magic Whip feels emphatic. If it rocks, it fits perfectly in a live setting, easy to place among their best-ofs. But when it slumps, it really crumbles. At one point, they land on a song sandwiched between a childlike rhythm and a galactic twang; “Ice Cream Man” scoops up creepy lyrics, like “Here comes the ice cream man bouncing up the hill.”
The Magic Whip’s backstory sets it perfectly within the early ’00s. Considering the nature of Albarn’s tone and the tweaks that his bandmates attempt to make without adding much modern production, that actually seems pretty accurate. If this is Blur’s final hurrah, it’s a far better eulogy than that last album.
Essential Tracks: “Lonesome Street”, “My Terracotta Heart”, and “Pyongyang”