After much hoo-hah, Blur finally announced new album The Magic Whip earlier this year.
The optimists looked forward to new Blur material. However the more pessimistic folk pointed to Damon Albarn‘s previous comments on the album not seeing light of day. Can an album that spawned from sessions previously considered a failure be of any great quality?
So the question is, is this classic Blur or B-sides at best? The answer lies somewhere inbetween…
‘Lonesome Street’ kicks off the album in typical Blur fashion, bar a few flourishes of Syd Barret style kookiness, and is a neat little song, hanging on a cheeky hook for the duration of the track. It sets the scene for the album as a whole in many ways. Kooky, flawed and loveable in one absurdist package, not withstanding the odd misfire. Self-referential while leaving space for forward motion.
‘New World Tower’ is pretty but mainly ignorable in the sense that it’s pretty much identical to much of singer Damon Albarn’s recent solo album. It’s careworn and tender, but relatively forgettable. It also sits in a strange spot between the more anthemic whammy of ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘Go Out’.
‘Go Out’ debuted originally along with the album’s announcement in February, it’s fair to say that the song attracted the odd naysayer. Calm down though, it’s actually a nice little grower, and sounds a fair whack more powerful on an actual CD player, as opposed to YouTubing on your bashed up laptop. Yup, the lyrics are pretty much meaningless, but this is the sound of a band making music just to see where they wind up. This one will light up Hyde Park and The Isle Of Wight this summer, that’s a dead cert.
‘Ice Cream Man’ is another turn up the avant garde alleyway, sounding like an electric lullaby, it’s obviously inspired by the crazy tech mad world of Hong Kong. There’s a sense this one may grow but for now, like ;New World Tower’, it sits there nicely between the more obvious singles without causing too much commotion. In some ways it comes across as if the band were aiming to make a pointed statement about not chasing the hits anymore by loading the album with sonic play. ‘I Thought I Was A Spaceman’ takes a similar excursion into the electronic. Perhaps that’s this reviewer’s overall gripe with the album, the lack of Graham Coxon’s exquisite anti-guitar that was so missed on the miserable Think Tank. If you focus, you’ll notice his contributions underneath sonic mess, but it seems a shame he hasn’t taken center stage in the way that he used to do without even trying.
‘I Broadcast’ has that mid 90’s B-Side feel, loose and fun in the way it tries something different, as opposed to the more po-faced attempts thus far. It retains it’s hooks while sounding like the inside of a high speed pinball machine in the heart of downtown Tokyo. Hints of ‘Trouble In The Message Center’ come through in it’s punkish loose spirit. It’s hard not to like Blur in pop mode!
‘My Terracotta Heart’ and ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ bring us down again. More Blur in style, they sit better among the upbeat and poppy material as controlled and relaxed counterparts. While some earlier tracks perhaps felt contrived in their experimentation, these feel natural and relaxed, letting the tunes seep through more rather than being strangled by Stephen Street’s regrettably over enthusiastic production chops.
‘Pyongyang’ is probably the most lyrically affecting – “I look down from my window, To the island where I’m held, Listen while you’re sleeping, Darkness is itself effort” – on an album that seems less focused on that element than past Blur works. Probably as a result of the rushed out nature of the album, which was recorded quickly and was seemingly almost scrapped. ‘Pyongyang’ is a beauty of a track, brooding at the right points while leaving space to breath and grow.
‘Ong Ong’ is a bit of a misfire, sounding lazy and a tad phoned in. But that’s all forgiven as Coxon’s reverb driven twang sounds in the wonderful closer ‘Mirrorball’. Another brooder of a track, it hits the right spot between eastern influence and old school Blur.
So simply, there’s probably enough to appease the two camps of Blur fans, there’s the obvious hits for those longing for the Modern Life Is Rubbish – The Great Escape era Blur, in the heady days of full on indie pop. And those longing for forward motion will find plenty to explore upon repeated listens.
There’s the odd misfire and a few tracks that have the feel of growers, even if their potential isn’t 100% apparent yet, but overall it’s a confident comeback that won’t do the old legacy any harm and it’s safe to say most fans would prefer to see The Magic Whip than nothing at all. But let’s face it, we’ll all be queuing to hear ‘Parklife’ and the big hits when they hit the festivals this summer, regardless of the understated quality of this album.