Well, that was unexpected. Blur fans will be in heaven after today’s announcement of a new album complete with a massive live show in Hyde Park and the first new track and video. It will be the first album released by the four-piece since 1999’s ’13’ and as a three-piece without Graham Coxon since 2003’s ‘Think Tank’.
In a webcast interview with Zane Lowe today at a Chinese restaurant in London’s Soho, a number of details were revealed by the band. The basic essentials? ‘The Magic Whip’ will come out on April 27. It was produced by Stephen Street, who worked with Blur on ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’, ‘Parklife’ and ‘Blur’. It was recorded, mainly, in a “hot little room” in Hong Kong amidst a lot of “sonic landscaping”, “jamming” and “putting down ideas”. The bulk of the process took five days and then the band “slung it over” to Stephen Street to “look through it and organise it.”
But what of the sound? First track ‘Go Out’ has Coxon’s immediate, crunchy, muscular guitar all over it – and it’s a welcome reminder of how effectively it complements Albarn’s lazy, knowing drawl. There’s the signature Albarn “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-ohs” and you can just imagine him singing eyes raised to the heavens, all fey and wry. Electronic squelches, synthesised scrapes and mini-explosions provide texture against a kicking beat that recalls ‘Crazy Beat’. It’s the little twists that make it way more than a run-of-the-mill mortgage-paying single: the offbeat emphasis Albarn puts on the “to the local”, for example, and the squealing guitar that appears like a lightning bolt out of nowhere 60 seconds into the track.
In the band’s Q&A session, Albarn compared the album to David Bowie’s Berlin era, saying “there’s nothing pastoral about it, it’s an urban record.” Grahan Coxon chimed in saying most of them “may not sound like classic Blur”. ‘The Magic Whip’ could be experimental – and that’s one of the big reasons why Blur remain relevant in 2015.
Bar a few exceptions, the prospect of an old Britpop band releasing a new album decades later is about as exciting as dental floss. While there were some great records made during the height of indie rule in 90s Britain, most artists connected to the epoch’s golden age seem cursed, churning out the same old good-time cheese-grunge, but without the accompanying high-octane antics and cartoonish ephemera that made it so eye-catching.
Blur stand apart. The albums they released post-Britpop were all pretty good, their reunion shows since reforming in 2008 have been explosive and two tracks released in 2012 – ‘The Puritan’ and ‘Under The Westway’ – showed they could still write beautiful, affecting songs. Looking at what they’ve been up to over the last decade or so, ‘The Magic Whip’ could be a very interesting project indeed.
From drummer Remi Kabaka to Brian Eno, Gorillaz to Bobby Womack, Actress to TEED, theatre director Rufus Norris to Tony Allen, Albarn has worked with a number of innovative artists since Blur’s last album. Perhaps there’ll be guests on ‘The Magic Whip’. And could we hear shades of Albarn’s compositions for opera? Or the musical of Alice In Wonderland that will premiere later this year?
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One of the most arresting elements of Albarn’s solo ‘Everyday Robots’ was the unusually intimate feel. It was the first time we heard lyrics about his life, his feelings, his heroin use. It wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that new openness translate into the lyrics of ‘The Magic Whip’. I’m sure I’m not the only Blur fan who’d be interested to hear something a little personal. Coxon alluded positively to personal lyrics on ‘The Magic Whip’ though Albarn was typically veiled. “Everything was related to being in that quite claustrophobic island with millions and millions of other people,” he said.
It’s about the time we were there, the moment I was there, 24 hours after they’d scrubbed the streets clean after the protests and previous experiences I’d had in Hong Kong with Gorillaz and China. I’ve got quite a strong emotional connection to China. It also gave me the opportunity to write about my visit to North Korea. It was about us and our relationship with each other. It’s proved to be an interesting subject matter.
Albarn was reluctant to discuss the track about North Korea in today’s press conference but could we hear Blur’s political and social interests spill into the songs? In the last decade Dave Rowntree’s been vocal about the death penalty, file-sharing, Scottish Independence and the Iraq war (which he supported). In 2008, he was selected by the Cities of London and Westminster Labour Party to stand against Conservative MP Mark Field at the 2010 election. Albarn is a long-time activist against war and you can count on him to have an opinion. He was unreserved in his criticism of the patronising Band Aid single recently, for example. The scene is set for a possible exploration into identity, culture and society as they did so archly on ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ and ‘Parklife’ – though the less said about Alex James “dad dancing” with David Cameron on New Year’s Eve, the better.
But then, it could just be 11 or so bloody good tunes. Coxon’s back with, from the sound of ‘Go Out’, an arsenal of the boisterous, hooky riffs that underpin Blur’s molecular energy. With the pair writing together again, a few stadium-filling anthems are assured. Will we see it live? They’ll be headlining British Summer Time at Hyde Park, London on June 20 but say more shows will come.
It’s not every day you can combine the hangover of Britpop with Winston Churchill’s wisdom but this quote seems apt: “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.” Maybe some massive old-school Britpop-style indie bangers will be enough – but hopefully we’ll hear metamorphosis on ‘The Magic Whip’. From the taste we’ve had so far, Blur are still alive and very much kicking.