It’s relatively safe to say that Blur took many people by surprise upon the announcement of their new album The Magic Whip. Conceived during a few days off in Asia, the record is the first since 1999 to feature founding guitarist Graham Coxon following his absence on 2003’s Think Tank. Lead single Go Out saw Blur go back to their gritty roots, with The Magic Whip generally flittering between sonic highlights from throughout Blur’s career.
Police sirens and everyday street noises precede Alex James’ descending bassline as Lonesome Street kicks off the record in classic Blur style. “You’ll have to go on the underground to get things done here” sings frontman Damon Albarn early on, with the cockney-twang in his voice instantly recognizable. The hometown influence of London is stamped all across Lonesome Street, with Albarn and Coxon’s vocals intertwining nicely via references to East Grinstead and the London Underground system. “Going down to lonesome street” sing Albarn and Coxon together towards the end, as a whistled melody enters the frame in the background. The end of Lonesome Street leads straight into the ethereal sounds of New World Towers, a song which leans more towards Gorillaz in its vocal style and percussive elements. Coxon manages to save the track from leaning too far towards the Gorillaz end of Albarn’s output with his recognizable guitar jabs and backing vocals adding an extra edge to the song. The song remains downbeat for the most part, with Albarn’s demure vocal tone sending the song in a whole new direction towards the end. “Seven on me” sings Albarn in a song which covers the ever-constant rise of skyscrapers in the modern world. As the song comes to an end, Go Out enters the frame and throws all negativity out of the window. Go Out is an anthem, a song which will go down as one of the best in Blur’s back catalogue. Messy guitar jabs combine with a powerful bassline and Dave Rowntree’s percussion. “To the local” sings Albarn as James and Coxon provide “oh oh” vocals in the background. A heavy bout of distorted guitars comes and goes throughout the song, adding urgency in order to avoid the track from slacking off that little bit too much.
Ice Cream Man is the first song on the album to employ the ‘magic whip’ imagery present on the album cover. Its fluorescent lights and downtown Hong Kong feel add a sense of orientalism on a record which is both as much distinctly English as it is Asian. “Here comes the ice cream man, parked at the end of the road” sings Albarn before a call-and-response section between himself and Coxon takes place. “Something new, something new” sing the frontman and guitarist to eachother as Vocoder vocals feature in the background. It’s one of the more laid back, groove-centred songs on the album, adding more emphasis on keyboards and occasional synthesizers. A gong gives way to Thought I Was a Spaceman’s trance elements, with Rowntree’s percussion being replaced by a repetitive electronic drum pattern for most of the song’s duration. Albarn tells a story throughout the course of the track, with thought-provoking references to black boxes, sand dunes and harbours making it very similair to Gorillaz’s Plastic Beach record. “Thought I was a spaceman digging out my heart in some distant sand dunes” sings Coxon during the breakdown, as pre-recorded Vocoder sounds help buzzsaw synths and wavy guitars combine for a beautiful ending. I Broadcast picks the pace right back up again with absurd synths and bass drums combine for a stadium anthem. It harks back to the more upbeat Blur songs of the 1990’s, with Albarn singing about a modern world which knows “your name and your blood type”. A fuzzy guitar breakdown and echoed vocals help keep the track up to speed before one more round of the chorus leads the track to its end.
When Blur unceremoniously fired Coxon from the band during sessions for 2003’s Think Tank, it took a huge toll on the friendship between Albarn and Coxon. This friendship is covered on the serene My Terracotta Heart as Albarn sings of himself and Coxon being brothers, “but that was years ago”. During the chorus, Albarn reflects on the past as he tells Coxon that he was “running out of heart”, before questioning whether or not he was “losing” the bespectacled frontman. An eerie chanted vocal plays the tender track out, with the marching band drums and strings of There Are Too Many of Us entering the frame. References to the overpopulation of our planet are bereft on this track, particularly in the line, “there are too many of us in houses here and there”. The drums kick in halfway through, helping the pace of the song increase whilst also adding substance. Ghost Ship proceeds to relax The Magic Whip’s shoulders in a song which begs for a cocktail next to the waterfront. It’s a calm track, emphasized by Alex James’ smooth bassline and Coxon’s hazy guitars. As a new melody enters play towards the end, the dark and brooding Pyonyang eventually takes over proceedings. A jangly, three-note guitar line accompanies a buzzy synthesizer and Albarn’s downbeat vocals, before the chorus soars as Albarn sings of a falling mausoleum, before referencing his recent trip to North Korea. Although it’s slightly on the long side, this is made up for by the vocal serenity and soothing instrumental outro, both of which make way for album highlight Ong Ong. If there’s one song which can get a whole field of 60,000 people singing along at the top of their lungs, it’s going to be Ong Ong. An opening “la la la” refrain accompanies upbeat verses and a chorus which encompasses a gospel choir and the sing-a-long-ready line, “I wanna be with you”. It’s as close as Blur gets to classic tracks Parklife or Country House on The Magic Whip, but boy do they do it good. The album closes on the downbeat Mirrorball, its lead guitar line sounding abandoned and isolated in and amongst shakers and other interesting percussion.
If there’s one thing which The Magic Whip has taught us, it’s that Blur are back for good. It’s not only one of the finest albums of 2015, but also one of the best records Blur has ever put out.