After a twelve year gap, Blur have returned with new material. Not only that, but Graham Coxon (who left the band early in the creation process of Think Tank) has re-joined, marking seventeen years since their last album as a complete band. In the meantime both frontman Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon have pursued separate ventures (including several solo albums each and Albarn’s collaborative multi-media project, Gorillaz), David Rowntree has become a qualified solicitor and Alex James has launched a line of cheeses in supermarkets.
Despite this break, however, Blur seem to have been exempt from the kind of insatiable expectation that a band (particularly one as popular as Blur in their heyday) might rightfully expect after such a long and unsure hiatus. Perhaps it has something to do with the ongoing contributions of Albarn and Coxon in the interim (or perhaps for me it has something to with the fact that their last album came out when I was seven, meaning Blur did not enter my life until my early teens and by the time I had fully explored their back catalogue only had to wait a few years). Regardless, not only does The Magic Whip’s return feel like a natural re-introduction for Blur, but they seem to have gained something by leaving and returning.
This is definitely Blur, but in many ways it is a bringing together of the band’s work so far; a summation not just of all things Blur, but also all things Albarn and Coxon. Gorillaz’ Plastic Beach can be felt in the concerns and aesthetics of tracks such as ‘There are Too Many of Us’, which is preoccupied with a swelling population in increasingly small spaces, and ‘New World Towers’, which conveys a wonder and despair in reaction to a modern cityscape. The lonely, sincere vocals of Albarn’s solo album Everyday Robots crop up in ‘Thought I was a Spaceman’, while Coxon’s more aggressive guitar-driven work is also apparent throughout. ‘Ghost Ship’ feels a bit honed in, less guitar heavy and slightly mellowed version of Coxon’s ‘Bittersweet Bundle of Misery’.
Coxon’s return has brought back elements from before Think Tank, particularly projects where he took the creative lead (such as 13), especially with the re-intoduction of more guitar based tracks such as ‘Go Out’ and ‘Ong Ong’. The more electronic sounds of the post-Coxon era (namely Think Tank, but also in Damon’s side projects) are also abundant, most notably in ‘Ice Cream Man’ and ‘My Terracotta Heart’. The Magic Whip is something both 13 and Think Tank; both Coxon and Albarn.
Similarly, the aftershock of the band’s Britpop days can be felt. ‘I Broadcast’ begins with some unnerving synths but quickly establishes pace and builds into some Parklife or The Great Escape style guitar riffs and shouty Albarn vocals; even the short harmonies between Albarn and Coxon are reminiscent of this period (the two singing together also holds a comforting suggestion of the band’s re-found unity).
While tracks such as ‘Pyongyang’ (which Albarn wrote after visiting the North Korean capital) can come together to create an intense sorrow, others, such as the boisterous ‘Ong Ong’, delve into hope and affection, even mellowing out into calm and ease in ‘Ghost Ship’. The tracks can be sinister or sweet, or both, as is certainly the case for the sinister ‘Ice Cream Man’, where something dangerous seems to lurk beneath an innocent surface.
The Magic Whip is an album which spans Blur’s previous endeavours as a band, as well as a collection of individuals. While it could be criticised for its lack of innovation (while the album certainly collates the band’s varied enterprises and reshuffles their elements, it does not provide much that is truly new) there is little else of fault to be found. The album is interesting and varied, and well worth more than a few listens.