Album Review: The Magic Whip by Blur

Posted at June 17th, 2015 | by Mukul Menon | in Reviews

Blur’s most famous song, outside of the UK and certain other countries, is called ‘Song 2’. The irony behind that apathetic title of their most popular track, which received worldwide attention, particularly because of receiving extensive airplay in the U.S for the first time, is that they made the song mocking the American ‘grunge’ scene, in the first place, that they despised all their lives. Even though they are largely ignored in America, they are one of the biggest bands in the UK since the nineties, and The Magic Whip, a comeback album made 12 years after their last release Think Tank (2003), instantly topped the charts. Unlike the recent string of misfiring revival albums by rock and roll bands of yesteryear, it’s been both a commercial and a critical success; one that fans actually hope isn’t the last one. It also marks the band’s reunion with Stephen Street as the producer who had worked on most of Blur’s records. This time, Damon Albarn’s and Graham Coxon’s partnership and their contributions as artists are the two pivotal forces at play.
 

 
Albarn’s cynical songwriting at times, when put out of the context of Blur’s or Gorillaz’s effervescent sounds could, by virtue of the content alone, very easily find itself subject to grim musical treatment in another’s hands. The common denominator in both these influential bands is the unmistakable playfulness in his compositions (New listeners can try listening to ‘Girls and Boys’ from their Parklife (1994) record or ‘Pirate Jet’ by Gorillaz). Blur’s quasi-punk rock vibe and the hint of post-punk sarcasm in their approach to lyrical content do enough to divert the attention away from the often serious material, concocting their trademark sound in the process. It would’ve been a tad disappointing if they simply stoked this formula up yet again in their much awaited reunion release. But it is with Albarn’s solo record Everyday Robots (2014) that the listener first witnessed a more subtle and meditative style with very little of the bright, bouncy sounds which are largely commonplace in his discography. It is this mood that he brings to The Magic Whip as opposed to his Gorillaz persona which would’ve been what people anticipated.
 
The other important aspect of the reunion is Graham Coxon’s music trajectory. Blur is very much non-existent in his absence, which is not say that Think Tank wasn’t any good, except that it sounded like an early Gorillaz record featuring Alex James and Dave Rowntree in all its songs. Coxon’s unreserved and fearless chord changes, eccentric and intricate guitar passages, are indispensable to the band and, in retrospect, the prime reason behind the fervid anticipation for this album; that Blur would work with him again. But he, too, in the light of his solo records brings something unique to the table. His guitar work in The Magic Whip seems like the natural descendant to his solo records such as Kiss of Morning (2002) which were inspired by psychedelic folk records as well as the distinctive finger picking style of Graham Davey that he warmed up to around that time. Descending acoustic guitar solos (or at least the electric guitar imitating one) and standalone passages are abundant on this record tending to serve as the melodic climax on most songs. There seems to a conscious effort to refrain from his usual restless, brimming guitar parts.
 
One striking pattern in this album is the sequentially alternating tones and styles in the successive songs. The presence of wildly different styles in a single Blur album has been a frequent occurrence in the past but never so discernible in its presentation. Here, perhaps owing to years of leading disparate musical lives, roughly two kinds of songs have emerged; with one style approaching a much more direct evolved version of the traditional Blur sound with the band even on auto pilot sometimes (especially on ‘I Broadcast’) and another channeling more introverted compositions with floating beats and atmospheric effects from Albarn’s solo world. There’s something in it for all varieties of fans whose preferred version of music from these musicians would be supplied evenly across this near-hour of music.
 
At the helm of the track list is a fan pleaser, belonging to the first category, in the form of ‘Lonesome Street’. For starters, it was hailed as the best song of 2015 on twitter by Liam Gallagher, the front man of their ex-arch rival band – Oasis. Syd Barrett and possibly Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn‘s musical influence are apparent here, especially during the brief, quirky bridge of the song sung by Coxon, that moves onto a catchy solo that alternates between synthesizer and guitar. For a song titled ‘Lonesome Street’, it floods with an addictive warm energy, and instantly you are reintroduced to Blur, the band of endless false contradictions.
 
As though seeking an outlet for their new collective spirit and finding a hint of it for the first time is ‘New World Towers’, a longing hymn of sorts drenched with imagery of urban landscapes reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Tokyo in Enter the Void;
 
Green, green, the neon green new world towers, Plane flying overhead satellite showers..
..Green turns to red and blue and time relates, to all again and sleep the rescue

 
This theme, an ever extending odyssey starting with the band’s signature album Modern life is rubbish (1993), tries to bring in the essence of the city, its people and lifestyles morphing into one common global underbelly, usually in the form of talking about life in England but hinting at a wider perspective. But this time a lot of the references are based in Hong Kong and Korea.
 
Amongst the songs with explicit references to the places he’s been at none probably captures the sense of that as much as ‘Ghost Ship’, an odd soul / reggae groove that somehow supplies our imagination of his experience at Hong Kong.
 
But at times this sound has hit an upper balance, taking them down new and exciting paths. ‘Pyongyang’, a song about Albarn’s experiences in North Korea, is an unusual addition to Blur’s catalogue, especially if it were found randomly amongst other songs. But it is the most cinematic experience in the music from the album that elevates its artistic value. Although they have been known to write melancholic songs in the past, this is the moment of inspiration that draws enough blood for the listener to truly hail the record.
 
Kid the mausoleum’s fallen, And the perfect avenues
Will seem empty without you, And the pink light that bathes the great leaders is fading
By the time your sun is rising there, Out here it’s turning blue
The silver rockets coming, And the cherry trees of Pyongyang
I’m leaving
 
Its placement in the track list is apt, the effect of which is only compounded by easing the listener up with a song in a similar vein – ‘My Terracotta Heart’, a few tracks in advance. It is a successor of ‘Tender’ from 13 (1999) and Blur manage to do it again, which is to have such a song received without disbelief. I imagine that after listening to a load of their thinly-veiled cynicism, a blatant sentimental track somehow becomes a welcome addition. ‘Tender’ was a breakup song (a type of song that more cerebral artists such as Blur are expected to refrain from making); and this, too, is about the strained relationship between Coxon and Albarn over the years. Plus, it has a beautiful ‘guitar solo’ to top it off, melancholically speaking.
 
With its infectious start-stop melodic-dissonant switches, ‘Go Out’ stands out as the highlight of the album. It brings about Blur’s hyper-garage rock, adrenaline packed sensibilities at a much lower tempo than usual, oddly making more primal in nature; as though they’re playing as hard as they can in boiler room jam session to compensate for a slow paced tune. There is an exploding barrage of noise and glitchy effects in the verse alternating with a delay drunk guitar just stabbing with the bass drum and snare hits, while the entire song rests on James’s throbbing bass line and Rowntree’s backbeat. The song switches to its melodic phase with some catchy O-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-‘s. Amongst Coxon’s dissonant breakdown solos ‘Go Out’ will definitely figure high in the list.
 
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There are no low points worth mentioning in the album; instead it manages to stir the imagination of the listener with anticipation for their future albums if they continue as a band. Amongst the important aspects of the album’s success is the reintegration of Stephen Street who manages to augment the central captivating feature of Blur that is the fearless spirit with which they push the envelope with every release, always making the records sound lush and full in texture. The Magic Whip stands testament to it, especially in the light of a comeback.

Mukul Menon

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