Last Friday, Blur made their live comeback at London venue Mode, a teeny 300-capacity sweatbox located (where else?) near the Westway. Here, to the delight of the gaggle of competition winners inside, they played new album ‘The Magic Whip’ from start to finish: the first airing of their first album in 12 years. Not all hope was lost if you weren’t among the chosen few, however. Last night (March 25) the band streamed the gig in full on YouTube, giving fans a glimpse at the record a month ahead of its April 27 release date. Here’s a track-by-track rundown of how it sounded…
You will have heard this one by now. The third track to be released ahead of the record at the beginning of this week (March 23), it opens ‘The Magic Whip’ with a jaunty slice of classic Life trilogy-era Blur. Though Damon Albarn’s cheeky chappy delivery and Graham Coxon’s bouncing fretwork are familiar, ‘Lonesome Street’ is no cheap slice of nostalgia – convoluted and ever-shifting, it’s actually a pretty strange beast beneath its chipper exterior.
‘New World Towers’
Damon takes to the piano for the album’s next offering – a more introverted, bassline-driven number that recalls the singer’s work with The Good, The Bad and The Queen more than Blur. With lyrics about buildings “carved out of the great white sky”, it has the feel of a bustling yet distant metropolis, coming good on Albarn’s statement that the album is “very much an urban record”.
Another familiar one. But while the crunching, wonky rhythms of lead single ‘Go Out’ will already be ingrained in the brains of any Blur fan worth their salt, what this performance displayed was the track’s potential to be a bona fide live behemoth. Opening with some squalling Coxon fretwork, its “at the local” chorus was delivered with ‘Girls And Boys’ style gusto, Albarn thrust forward into the crowd whipping them into a fervour. Watch out Hyde Park.
‘Ice Cream Man’
Kicking off with some twinkling xylophone parts and seemingly light-hearted lyrics about the “ice cream man, parked at the end of the road”, it then kicks in with some surprisingly downbeat guitar work, giving an ominous quality to the innocent exterior. By the end, Alex James’ lolloping bass has taken charge, dominating proceedings as the ice cream van’s trill putters off, on to its next stop.
‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’
One of the record’s most complex offerings, ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ takes Blur’s fondness for characters and translates it through a dark and unsettling lens. “I thought I was a spaceman digging out my heart/ In some distant sand dunes,” mourns Damon, in full-on melancholy mode over processed drum machine beats and low-key washes of guitar. As the track builds, the rest of the band joins him, adding layers of oriental-sounding percussion, warped tremolo-heavy guitar parts and laconic basslines – a dystopian soundtrack of another world. At the end, meanwhile, it turns out the spaceman was in Hyde Park all along. All’s well that ends well as they say.
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If 1992 transitional single ‘Popscene’ is arguably Blur’s great underrated track (it only just skimmed the Top 40 on release), then ‘I Broadcast’ is a ‘Popscene’ mk II to right its predecessor’s wrongs. Exuberant and bratty, it’s a hedonistic all guns blazing romp of a track that’s guaranteed to get the entirety of Hyde Park jumping come June 20.
‘My Terracotta Heart’
Tissues at the ready, this one could get weepy. Minimal and tender, if ‘My Terracotta Heart’ doesn’t get you with its fragile sonics (a very close cousin to Albarn solo track ‘Hollow Ponds’) then it’ll sucker punch you lyrically. “We were more like brothers/ But that was years ago,” laments Damon. “I’m running out of open roads to you”. Never has Damon and Graham’s delicate yin/yang relationship been splayed open so bare, and with ‘The Magic Whip’ by all accounts doing a good deal of inter-band healing, these insights seem all the more poignant.
‘There Are Too Many Of Us’
The second track to be revealed from the record, ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ hinted at wildly different sonic terrain for the quartet: military beats; claustrophobic atmospheres; more shade than light. In the context of the rest of the record, however, it sits more comfortably at the starker end of the general urban milieu of the album, the most sonically clear example of a record set in the sometimes oppressive bustle of one of the world’s busiest cities.
A slice of laid-back respite from the starkness that precedes it, ‘Ghost Ship’ is – musically at least – one of the lightest moments on the album. Lilting, almost reggae-indebted basslines and shimmering guitars send Blur’s ship sailing away to a tropical island, though lyrically Albarn is still “drowning [his] heart in Hong Kong”.
Potentially the most highly-anticipated track on the record due to its North Korean setting, ‘Pyongyang’ in fact negates sweeping political statements in favour of pretty melodies and the informed but slightly removed lyrical viewpoint of a narrator on the sidelines. “By the time the sun is rising there, out here it’s turning blue,” Albarn intones. “The pink light that bathed the great leaders is fading”. The chorus, meanwhile, soars in the heart-busting way that only Damon Albarn knows how.
Aka the crowd-pleasing one. If ‘Go Out’s chorus is ‘The Magic Whip’s ‘Girls And Boys’, then ‘Ong Ong’ is its ‘Country House’, a happy-go-lucky, populist knees up that conceals a knowing wink within its easily digestible charm. All chantable lyrics and sing-a-long chorus (“I wanna be with you”), it’s the kind of Blur track that people who only know two Blur songs would expect Blur to write. Make of that what you will.
And it looks like we might have made it to the end. ‘Mirror Ball’ closes the album with some classic Blur balladry a la ‘This Is A Low’. Sweeping, sad chord progressions and a liberal dousing of tremolo-heavy guitar make it a grand, emotionally-wrought finale to the record. “You cry your eyes out/ Hold close to me,” Damon pleads. Oh, you only had to ask…
Of course, how altered the tracks are in these adrenalin-fuelled live incarnations from their recorded form remains to be seen, but either way – ‘The Magic Whip’ is sounding pretty exciting from here.