Blur has finally returned with new material in the whimsically entitled Magic Whip, their eighth studio album release and the first record since 2003’s Think Tank. Perhaps the most important thing to say about the new tracks is that there’s little in the way of a backward looking glance about any of them as they forge a new path for the band, pitching in with new sounds, song structure and experimentation. While there are undoubtedly going to be many old school Brit pop fans disappointed to discover the new direction Blur has taken, it makes for a much more progressive collection as a result, and, for us, a better album.
However, there is a little lost in the process that we can’t help but miss and the critical element is the feeling of joy and life that came through strongly on hits like Girls & Boys, Coffee & TV, Parklife, Country House and She’s So High in spite of their deeper subtext. That’s not to say that there aren’t any songs that come close on The Magic Whip, with lead single, Go Out, making the biggest headway, but they don’t quite instill you with the same lust for life that their predecessors did.
What you’re left with, however, is a very stylish and artistic album from Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree that pushes the experimentation boundaries much further than they have before. It’s an art school album that borders on avant garde with the addition of the electro influences that Albarn has picked up on the back of his Gorillaz days and last year’s solo album, Everyday Robots.
The good news is that it has touches of Graham Coxon’s Happiness In Magazines in the mix too, which gives a pretty clear indication that there was a collaborative approach to its creation, along with stripped back rock, noise rock and garage pop, so what you get is something between The Kills, Lou Reed, Berlin era Bowie, and solo Albarn and Coxon.
Album highlights include single Go Out with its stylish take on noise rock, Lonesome Street’s Chinese keyboard melodies and bouncing electric guitar rhythm, Pyongyang‘s stripped back lo-fi psychedelia and the 60s pop that is Ong Ong, which sounds like it might have been inspired by a Euros Childs/The Loves mashup. I Broadcast is a raucous blast and closing track, Mirrorball works pretty well as a drifting end to the South East Asian Odyssey, bringing in echoing schlomo surf guitar over western percussion and downbeat vocals.
The Magic Whip also has a random combination of Blur at its most serious and Blur seemingly at its most inane, although even here there’s a vaguely smart humour about it all. It flitters from the social critique of There Are Too Many Of Us, which combines Eno-like electro with military march drums, to the ridiculousness of Ice Cream Man, which takes more from Gorillaz than it does the reformed four-piece.
On a lower note, some of the tracks or even sections of the more impressive songs are easy to tune out of, with New World Towers making a good example as it delivers a solid sound and focus without really hauling you too vigorously into its tale of high rise China. Thought I Was A Spaceman, Ghost Ship and My Terracotta Heart all fall into a similar space with positive notes on a very sparse canvas that lacks the hooks it needs to hold itself to the wall.
However, once you’ve listened through The Magic Whip as a whole a few times, you start to get the overall . Considering the fact that it was conceptualised during recording and jam sessions in a tiny facility in Hong Kong, you can see why the album has turned out so different from all of their previous material, while still have a few strings in the past. You also start to understand where the everyday Asian park life backdrop of it all comes from and while it’s clearly a product of its place and time, it’s resulted in a cool new addition to the Blur canon.
Blur, The Magic Whip review: 4.1/5