Familiar but also exploratory, the legendary band's first album since 2003 is a triumph
The global Blur journey continues. From their corner of Colchester they’ve hit London’s Primrose Hill for 1993’s ‘For Tomorrow’, the vomit rivers of Greek island Mykonos on ‘Girls And Boys’, engaged with the sounds of Seattle grunge on ‘Blur’ and outer space for ’13’, then taken to a Moroccan cypress grove to write the lyrics for 2003’s ‘Think Tank’. Now it brings us to Hong Kong, a layover on their way to ever more exotic locales. ‘The Magic Whip’ reads a flick-book of postcards gathered along the way, and a few as-yet unwritten.
A hint of ‘Popscene’, a squelch of ‘Crazy Beat’, a swirl of ‘This Is A Low’. As alien as it initially sounds – smothered in the stark global synthetics Damon Albarn introduced on ‘Think Tank’ and carried through to last year’s solo album – ‘The Magic Whip’ is peppered with notes of familiarity. So what slowly strikes you about Blur’s long-awaited eighth album, is how reassuringly Blur it feels; advancing the formula but warmly accessible. And complete too; it was, we’re told, thrown down in just five spare days in Hong Kong and later pieced together by Graham Coxon and Stephen Street from extended jams lingering on Damon’s laptop, yet it sounds like the work of slavish months spent recapturing the magic and whipping it into fresh flavours. Clearly the old chemistry came easy.
Parklifers are thrown the bone of opener ‘Lonesome Street’. With its Britpop swagger and talk of catching “the 5.14 to East Grinstead”, it’s a pleasing self-pastiche, a welcoming beckon inside. Other tracks hark back to their history – the grinding ‘Go Out’ could sit on ‘13’ with its coruscating guitar squalls, and catchy knees-up ‘Ong Ong’ will be the new song lapped up at Hyde Park this summer, resembling a beery Ziggy Stardust.
But a crowd-pleasing recreation of past glories a la Suede’s 2013 comeback ‘Bloodsports’ just wouldn’t be Blur. The fascination of ‘The Magic Whip’ is in how a reanimated Blur imagine they’d have developed by 2015, and how the Hong Kong environment fed into that. ‘I Broadcast’ comes on like a Far Eastern arcade machine playing ‘Popscene’. ‘New World Towers’ is a full-band sister-piece to Damon’s ‘Everyday Robots’, Alex’s bass and Graham’s acoustic set to hazy electronics, sonorous thuds and laptop textures. ‘Ice Cream Man’ washes a classic Blur character study with the bleeps, clicks and whirrs of the modern age trying to sound like 1995’s idea of 2015.
Damon’s current obsession with technological dislocation combines with the clinical confusion of Hong Kong to give stretches of the album a lingering, sombre tone where Blur albums of old might have thrown in a wild-assed ‘Bugman’ or ‘Song 2’. The military strings of ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ reflect the brooding threat of the population explosion that struck Damon in China and post-apocalyptic images of a desert engulfing Hyde Park on death-ray doom tune ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ speak of a soul-sapped humankind sleepwalking into oblivion. Blur have always striven to make their albums era-defining snapshots of life and culture, and ‘The Magic Whip’’s portrait, in contrast with its garish artwork, is often a mournful monochrome.
But you only need listen to the stunning ‘Pyongyang’, the album’s lustrous ‘This Is A Low’ named after the downtrodden North Korean capital, to see how Blur still find hope and beauty in desolation. This is a reunited band making music to rival their very best. There’s airmiles aplenty in these Essex Dogs yet.
Director: Stephen Street
Record label: Parlophone
Release date: 27 Apr, 2015