Sunday, May 03, 2015

Whoo-Hoo! Blur is Back and 'The Magic Whip' Offers Flavorful New Twists -- Album Review

Album Review

The Magic Whip

I love Blur and I love this album, well beyond simply being happy that it--and the original band--exists, 12 years after the last, 3/4 of Blur, studio release.

In a variety of ways, The Magic Whip reminds me of The Next Day, David Bowie's 2013 album that also came seemingly out of the blue.

Neither album quite appoaches or overtakes its artist's glorious past, in part due to the lack of any deliriously catchy singles, and The Magic Whip is unlikely to convert many who have never much cared about--or for--Blur.

But like The Next Day, this is an extremely enjoyable and accomplished album that seems unconcerned about resurrecting the past while abetting a brilliant oeuvre by focusing--however unexpectedly--on the present.

Not altogether unlike Bowie on his last album, or its own frontman and lyricist, Damon Albarn, on his 2014 solo record, Everyday Robots, Blur seems largely content to traipse in observational songs with unrushed, relatively low-key soundscapes. Though this album is substantially more musically muscular than Albarn's solo turn. 

Like Ray Davies and Paul Weller before him, Albarn has long penned lyrical commentaries on British life--perhaps why the band never really "broke" America--often with a moody, dour or simply softer tone.

But rather than reminding of quieter '90s gems like "This Is a Low" or "End of a Century," songs like "New World Towers" and "Ghost Ship" are more in the vein of Albarn's Everyday Robots, extending his focus on technological isolation and even desolation

"Ice Cream Man," from which the album's title derives, is propelled by electronic blips, while the rather Bowiesque "Thought I Was a Spaceman" may remind thematically of "Space Oddity" or "Ashes to Ashes," but is much more sonically aligned with "Where Are We Now?" off The Next Day.

But as with the terrific Blur albums from their initial 1990s heyday--Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape and more--part of the beauty of The Magic Whip is the diversity of tones and textures across the 12 songs. 

Nothing here quite has the sugary pop rush of "Country House," "Tracy Jacks," "Parklife" or other gems that helped the band (almost) rule BritPop in the '90s. (Oasis having made a much bigger dent in America, even if the battle at home was rather close.)

Only "Ong Ong," with Albarn's lilting "la la la's" and simple "I wanna be with you" refrain, has a true buoyancy, though it's great to hear Graham Coxon's guitar again--he was absent for 2003's Think Tank--especially on songs like "Lonesome Street" and "I Broadcast" that show well into their individual 40s, Blur can still rock when they want to.

Yet while I was admittedly somewhat more enamored with Oasis 20 years ago--despite buying Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife and 1997's self-titled Blur album at the time--in having gotten wholeheartedly into Blur over the past 10, it's now obvious why Blur was always the superior artist.

Then, and now, Albarn, Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree were seemingly less interested in being straightforward--and perhaps resultingly, less appealing to Americans--than in being perpetually innovative and, to anyone who took the time to explore, far more interesting.

That The Magic Whip came together out of some ad hoc recording the band did while stuck in Hong Kong a few years back--they have played live shows and even toured recently, which is what found them delayed in Hong Kong when some concerts were cancelled--with over a year passing before Coxon and longtime producer Stephen Street fleshed out what they had captured and impressed Albarn enough to convince the perpetually project-laden singer that a stellar album could be had, makes the new album all the more impressive.

As has been conveyed by others, it sounds like Blur of old, but not like old Blur. Songs like the beautiful "Pyongyang" clearly derive from the locale of the recordings--Albarn returned there to write lyrics--but don't lose the universality Albarn has long captured within London.

While I have looked forward to this album ever since it was announced barely 2 months ago, and have listened to all the pre-released songs--including the stellar "Go Out" and "There Are Too Many of Us"--I've really only had a week to digest The Magic Whip in full.

That I like it as much as I do is certainly delighting, especially accompanied by the sense that time and familiarity will only make me appreciate it even more.

Blur is back and The Magic Whip is clearly a tasty treat. And for that I say, as the band sang on 1997's "Song 2," probably still their best-known in America:


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