Release Date: Apr 28, 2015
Record label: Elektra
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Dance-Rock
Promises of a new Blur album have been making headlines for years. Damon Albarn is quick to run his mouth, suggesting new material is in the future one week and then completely shutting down the possibility of a Blur reunion the next. So when the Britpop group announced they would be releasing their first new album in 12 years, The Magic Whip, fans were genuinely surprised.
What do you do when everyone assumes that your band is never going to release another album? Take a 12-year-long break, embark on myriad musical offshoots, maybe run for political office or become a cheese farmer, and then get the band back together in an overheated Hong Kong studio to make the record that you want to make? Well, that's what Blur did — and the results are a pleasant surprise. The Magic Whip hears the band reuniting for their first new LP since 2003's Think Tank — an album that pretty much documents the band's breakup to tape, with guitarist Graham Coxon disappearing midway through the sessions and frontman Damon Albarn taking charge of the band's sound. On The Magic Whip, it's clear that the band has benefitted from some time apart.
Review Summary: Definitely better than any Oasis record in decades.The most amazing thing about The Magic Whip is not the very fact of its creation, but rather how seamlessly it slides into Blur’s catalogue, a new chapter of a book that’s ink still looks fresh. In the grand scheme of rock band reunions, the six-year gap between 2003’s Think Tank and the band’s only somewhat surprising run of shows in 2009 is trivial. The “only somewhat” is cynicism speaking in an age where nostalgia pays handsomely; the “surprising,” of course, is the very real enmity between Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon that split Blur apart and transformed Think Tank from a promising exploration to a flawed, if beautiful, record.
Blur dissolved slowly so it follows that their reunion was protracted -- a halting reconvening that produced understated singles and excellent concerts spread out over a period of six years. Finding a headlining appearance at Japan's Tokyo Rocks festival canceled in the summer of 2013, the band holed up in a Hong Kong studio for five days, producing several reels of jams they abandoned until guitarist Graham Coxon decided to shape them into songs with the assistance of producer Stephen Street, the collaborator behind their greatest albums of the '90s. It's an unwieldy history for The Magic Whip, a record that's casually confident and so assured in its attack it feels like a continuation, not a comeback.
In the Nineties, Oasis won the major Brit-pop battles: worldwide album sales, U.K. Number One singles and gossip-column yardage. But their archrivals, Blur, soundly beat them in exploration and legacy. Oasis wanted to be as big as the Beatles and the Who combined; Blur embodied those bands' impatient forward march.
Sometime in the year 2023, Blur and Radiohead will release the exact same album. As Radiohead’s material continues to get jammier, mellower and less electronic-based, and Blur’s gets bloopier, headier, and funkier, the distance between the two greatest thinking-man’s bands of the last quarter-century of British rock shrinks to increasingly negligible proportions. It might say something about the unifying effects of middle age on rock bands smart enough to evolve out of the vital brashness of youth, or it might suggest that there was never as much distance between the two groups as it seemed at their peaks, but it is in an interesting lens through which to view The Magic Whip, an intriguing statement of contemporary anxiety that often feels far more connected to OK Computer and Hail to the Thief than it does Parklife and 13.
BLUR BRINGS it all back home on their brilliant reunion album. “The Magic Whip” — the first record in 16 years to feature all four original members — reconstitutes the Brit-pop snap of the band’s commercial prime. Yet it also takes into account the widening perspectives, and ballooning influences, the members gathered in their years apart.
In a recent interview, Blur guitarist Graham Coxon described the impromptu recording sessions in 2013 that led to The Magic Whip, Blur’s first album as a foursome in 16 years. The Hong Kong facility was cramped; the instruments ranged from rudimentary to esoteric; the band were often physically touching. “We were making sounds that were not particularly Blur sounds in this very un-Blur city in a very un-Blur studio,” explained Coxon, whose mission it became to transform these sketches into an album.
There are two kinds of band re-formation. The first is so compellingly straightforward that the “classic” bands that haven’t done it now seem weirdly anomalous. You bury your differences, a process eased by the passing of time, the sagacity that comes with age and, frequently, the promise of a whopping cheque: if the past 10 years or so have told us anything about musicians, it’s that few things are as effective at resolving those bitter, decade-long feuds over guitar overdubs or backstage catering arrangements or the drummer’s taste in wives as the prospect of paying off one’s mortgage.
With the bulk of the material recorded in Hong Kong over seven days during a lull in touring, for a while it looked like The Magic Whip might never see the light of day. In a masterstroke of acting casual, the sudden announcement that Blur‘s new album was finished took many by surprise, deftly circumnavigating the hullabaloo that will likely surround the next Gorillaz album, lately slated for 2016. So for all the chinoiserie that frames the release, does The Magic Whip actually sound like a record made in or about the Far East? Damon Albarn seems to think it does, but then it was only he who returned to Hong Kong when some time had elapsed after the band sessions to finish his lyrics, inspired by the location.
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.
Be honest, nobody expected there to actually be another Blur album. Sixteen years since their last as a four-piece (1999’s ’13’), twelve since ‘Think Tank’ and its bittersweet closer ‘Battery In Your Leg’ - none of the signs were especially great. There’d been the big comeback, a triumphant jaunt from Colchester Railway Museum to the Main Stage of Glastonbury celebrating one of Britain’s very best bands.
As a child, I remember being somewhat bemused by accounts of Jesus’s post-resurrection conduct. All he seemed to do after returning from the grave was make a few random, dramatic appearances in front of his old chums, before fucking off forever. Surely if you or I were restored to earth we would get on with life, or at least go for some beers with the old gang, not say 'ta da!' a few times then go and live with our dad for all eternity.
The stories of band breakups have always trickled down through the press and into the realm of music history. Nothing is more indicative of human nature than reading about a clash of egos in the midst of struggle, desperately forging disparate attitudes into something resembling an album. When Dinosaur Jr. broke up in 1989, things got messy.
Early in the jarring opening pages of science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, the author appears to catch a glimmer of the actual future. Protagonist Guy Montag comes home from work to find his wife limp and dying of an overdose on sleeping pills. Montag calls for assistance and hangs back helplessly as paramedics revive her, thinking to himself, "There are too many of us.
The honeymoon didn’t even last a single day. Less than 24 hours after Blur had released “Go Out”, their first “lead single” in over 12 years, Grantland ran a lighthearted opinion piece from self-admitted Oasis fan Steven Hyden who took particular note about how for all the happy dances that Blur were inspiring for finally releasing another album after years upon years of rumors and whispers, Oasis were still, and always will be, the definitive Britpop champions. “Oasis’s best songs are transcendent,” he argued; “Blur’s best songs are very much a product of their time, and while Blur is important to the history of ‘90s rock, the relevance stops there.
Blur's members have been cast in quite divergent directions since the foursome began to disband during the recording of 2003's Think Tank: guitarist Graham Coxon has explored lo-fi guitar scuzz and Nick Drake-style confessional folk over the course of eight solo albums; frontman Damon Albarn has become one of music's most prodigious polymaths, whether he's been leading a world-conquering, cartoon-fronted trip-hop group or composing operas based on 16th-century Chinese literature; drummer Dave Rowntree became a solicitor and Labour activist; and bassist Alex James makes cheese. The intersection of that complicated Venn diagram could potentially sound nothing at all like Blur. When The Magic Whip commences with “Lonesome Street,” however, it's almost like being transported to Blur's imperial phase circa Parklife: Albarn riffs on Western consumer culture over Coxon's disjointed blend of psychedelic and post-punk guitar tropes, while Britpop's most formidable rhythm section bounces along jauntily before the song launches into a choral-inflected pre-chorus.
Well, this was coming. Despite Damon Albarn’s obfuscation (he’s variously told the press that, if Blur had a future, it would lie in one-off singles the likes of Fool’s Day and Under The Westway; that he “can’t do it anymore”; that there were no plans for any new Blur material to accompany their continuing live reunion), the perhaps inevitable new album is here, almost exactly 12 years to the day that Blur seemingly signed out with Think Tank, in 2003. It’s not been an easy road.
Blur celebrates its 27th anniversary this year. Let that sink in for a second. Now turn your gaze toward the elephant in the room: Are they still living in (as Liam Gallagher once put it so punningly) a “shite-life” instead of their mud, sweat, and tears Parklife? Don’t let the passing years discourage you, because it sounds like nothing has changed — as though Damon Albarn and his bandmates have been cryogenically frozen since they put out their last album in 2003.
If there were a Mount Rushmore for Blur fans – I know, seriously, no, but work with me here – some of our editorial team would be etched there in immortality. So, being entrusted with reviewing Blur’s first new album in a dozen years, and a cool 16 years since the original foursome were together across an entire album, is a bit like carrying a Faberge egg with my bare hands across an icy pond to one of their mum’s houses for her birthday. Blur was essentially ripped apart at the seams.
opinion byPETER TABAKIS The Magic Whip is a new Blur album. It heralds the return of the band’s complete roster, including prodigal guitarist Graham Coxon. It also happens to be grand, assured, and terrific. Prior to The Magic Whip's announcement, I expected to write the above words, in that particular order, never.
Blur's first album in 16 years to feature the original lineup does the right amount of looking inward and outward, forward and backward. It opens with Lonesome Street, a song described by guitarist Graham Coxon as a summation of the British band's sound: a bit narrative, a bit psychedelic, a bit eclectic. Coxon left in 2003, so those muscular riffs not only reassure us that he's back but also that Blur are re-energized as a result.
It’s been more than a dozen years since the last Blur album and 16 since the group’s last recording with all four members — frontman-guitarist-keyboardist Damon Albarn, vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist Graham Coxon, drummer Dave Rowntree, and bassist Alex James — fully involved in the recording process. The members have kept busy during that time with Coxon’s solo albums and Albarn’s various projects — including Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad & the Queen — being the most visible, as well as sporadic Blur gigs and song releases. The Britpop pioneers make up for lost time as a recording concern on their solid new album, “The Magic Whip,” out Tuesday.
In 2013, when the reunited Blur found themselves in Hong Kong with five days to kill midway through an Asian tour, rather than go sightseeing, they holed up in a studio and jammed together. After the ensuing year or so of radio silence from Blur HQ, it seemed that these now mythical "Hong Kong sessions" would never see the light of day, but in an act of humility he's not usually associated with, self-confessed control freak and Britpop polymath Damon Albarn gave over creative control of the project to his old mucker Graham Coxon. It has proved to be one of the best decisions he's ever made.
Best to worst, Parklife and Think Tank, Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree did with Britpop what the Clash managed in punk: replaced its original blueprint with their own. Seventh album since shoe-glazed debut Leisure (1991) and first since kitchen sink Think Tank (2003), Hong Kong-hatched The Magic Whip opens where it all began: dance mulch. Opener "Lonesome Street" preens the avant-garde melodicism of the occasionally estranged London quartet's 13 – its Bowie in Berlin moment – but then "New World Towers" encases an old-school Albarn backpack vocal, fibrous as nylon and muffled in melancholic lo-fi mode.
That Blur’s first studio album in 12 years saw the light of day is something of a minor miracle: The initial sessions for the full-length—which is also the group’s first record consistently featuring guitarist Graham Coxon since 1999’s 13—occurred in Hong Kong in mid-2013, and did nothing but gather dust until late 2014, when Coxon and producer Stephen Street started noodling on the music again and the band subsequently polished the results. In its brighter moments, The Magic Whip feels like a sparser take on Blur’s late-’90s guitar rock, and a not-so-distant cousin to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Most tunes are marked by laconic guitar frizz and spare, crisp percussion, while songs such as “Ice Cream Man” and “Thought I Was A Spaceman” have a moody underbelly marked by simmering, quirky electronic programming.