Has it really been twelve years? Twelve years since the enigmatic and largely Coxon-less ‘Think tank’ appeared? The tour that followed was a head-scratching affair as the band struggled to fill the gaping hole left by the diminutive guitarist and whilst a headline set at Reading 2003 was far from disastrous, the band seemed diminished somewhat. Clearly the band themselves felt the loss because Blur failed to reconvene following the tour and it seemed that one of the UK’s most successful acts had finally, tragically run its course.
It’s taken a long time for Blur to finally return. Despite initially reforming in 2008 and performing a handful of rabidly received shows, Blur seemed reticent when it came to recording anything more than ‘fool’s day’ and ‘under the Westway’ and numerous rumours and false starts didn’t help matters. Then, suddenly, a flurry of activity led to the announcement that the band would indeed be returning to active duty with ‘Magic Whip’, an album described by Damon as being “very urban”. The problem, of course, lies with expectation. After so long an absence, and with only a handful of incredibly popular shows under their collective belt, the anticipation surrounding ‘Magic Whip’ has been extraordinarily high, as you might expect from a band who so dominated the British indie scene throughout the 90s.
In all honesty it’s hard to know what to expect from a new Blur release. Each album is so different in tone that it’s hard to pin down what a new record may sound like and yet comfortingly, ‘Magic Whip’ sounds exactly as you subconsciously expect it to, all smart rhythms, oddly arranged guitars and, of course, Damon’s voice in turns streetwise and frail, ringing out from the heart of it all. Listening to ‘lonesome street’ it’s as if the band had never been away, the sound an amalgam of ‘Think tank’ and ‘parklife’, with a smart riff and danceable beat. Yet, the album is a surprisingly slight affair and it’s easy to miss just how good ‘magic whip’ actually is unless you take the trouble to return to it a fair few times. It’s an album that grows immeasurably with just a little effort and the band have clearly made the brave decision to trust their legions of fans to follow where they lead rather than lay it all out before them with a series of high-energy ‘girls and boys’ clones.
Having kicked off with the excellent ‘lonesome street’, a song that melds the Rolling Stones’ ‘shattered’ with David Bowie, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was going to be an album powered by taut rhythms but the ghost of ‘13’ is not so easily exorcised, and ‘new world towers’ is a subtle, haunting tune with a skeletal beat and Damon sounding more vulnerable than ever. Graham’s guitar here is wonderfully understated and occasionally beautiful and the song will soon get under your skin. Graham makes his influence felt on ‘go out, a song that begins with a wall of feedback before taking a left turn into the sort of quirky pop that dominated the immensely underrated (and overproduced) ‘the great escape’. A song that builds nicely, what really stands out the more you listen are the numerous effects and subtle nuances that stutter away in the background.
An album highlight that initially didn’t impress me at all is ‘ice cream man’. Easily mistaken for whimsy, a closer listen reveals it to be a strangely affecting song with a melody to die for, whilst the quirky instrumentation that opens the song soon gives way to some beautifully understated guitar work. The contemplative streak first noticed on ‘new world towers’ continues on ‘Thought I was a spaceman’, a track which is more ambient than indie, and one that sees Damon channelling David Bowie and Flaming Lips. It’s a track that benefits from loose limbed bass, ever-expanding percussion and a wonderfully cinematic sensibility that emerges gracefully form the haze. Things do take a punkier turn, if an unconventional one, on the frenetic ‘I broadcast’ which does feature fuzz-laden guitars, but then it also features weird strings, reverse delay and a quirky attitude that comes from the various members expanding their sonic palette somewhat since the days of ‘bank holiday’. ‘My terracotta heart’ is truly beautiful, contrasting a heavy, hypnotic beat with some gentle, trippy guitars and ringing bass. It’s another highlight of the album and suggests that Damon picked up a few tricks when guesting on Massive attack’s last album.
Another stylistic change takes place on ‘there are too many of us’ with its martial beat and Damon’s vocals spinning in from a radio left by an open window. Elegant and poignant, ‘there are too many of us’ is yet another surprising departure for the band, and yet it somehow fits perfectly on the record, especially as it dissolves into the pared back ‘ghost ship’, a song that takes dub bass and a chorus that would have fitted perfectly on the band’s self-titled album to provide the ideal soundtrack for a sunset in the city. ‘Pyonyang’ is a synth-led track that has a strange groove to it, reminiscent of ‘13’ at its most oblique whilst ‘Ong ong’ is Blur at their crowd-pleasing best with a sing-a-long intro and huge chorus. The album ends with the dusty, pseudo-western of ‘mirrorball’ which sounds like Neil Young jamming with Dire Straits, if you can imagine such a thing. It’s a suitably eclectic ending to a suitably eclectic album and it successfully leaves you wanting more.
With the huge outdoor shows of the last few years demonstrating that there’s still a massive and passionate fan base out there, Blur would have been entirely forgiven for releasing an album that played it safe and echoed the greatest hits of their former years. What they’ve done instead is more interesting than that, crafting an atmospheric and varied record that reveals its charms only slowly. If I were to review this after a single listen I would undoubtedly have branded the disc underwhelming, but that would be to miss the point and the more I have listened to ‘magic whip’, the more the album’s many layers have become apparent. There is immense beauty here, whimsy, the band’s famously contrary nature and, very occasionally, even a chance to rock, but most importantly Blur have shown that they are a viable artistic presence and not just a band intent on reliving past glories. ‘Magic whip’ is not an easy album to love, but persevere and you’ll find some of Blur’s very best work here