BLUR, The Magic Whip
Unexpectedly, Blur release their first album in twelve years and the first as a quartet since the last millenium. But one new album a decade is a decidedly passive workrate – and it can't help but feel that Blur have – audibly at least, become – like The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Gorillaz, and so forth – Albarn's plaything that comes out only when he feels like using the Coxon / James / Rowntree toys in his arsenal. A band sticks together in thick and thin, and isn't merely deployed at a whim. One could argue that, without a certain natural disaster causing the band to be stranded in Hong Kong for a week (a mere week! If that's all takes to make an album instead of 15 years), this record wouldn't exist. Records should be made because they need to be made. Not because of anything other reason.
And so, “The Magic Whip”... maybe it's because it's been so long since there was a Blur album, this sounds like the lovechild of the odd Coxon-less “Think Tank”, and “13”, heavy on dubby rhythms and rotund basslines, a rigid, boxy drum motif from Human Drum Machine Dave Rowntree and the characteristic squall of noise from Coxon who is the band's secret weapon. It opens with the everspiky “Lonesome Street”, proving that Albarn desperately needs someone who pushes back against him, a foil, an equal who causes friction : were this without Coxon, it would be a understated throbbing groove.
Over the 12 or so songs, what “The Magic Whip” does is.. refuse to sound essential. Every record up to, and including “13”, had a hint of desperation, a sense that The Art Will Out, that this must be made, that it is a compulsion. In many ways, it's not really a continuation of the previous records, but a battle between Damon Albarn – who is now pretty much used to always getting his own way – and the rest of the group, and here Albarn raises his game. Some of the songs - “Mirrorball”, “Ong Ong”, and “There Are Too Many Of Us” suffer by being at the back end of the record coupled with an occasionally insubstantial track or two at the front end, and, after about a week of listening, there's nothing I can think of that touches the way that “The Ballad Of Yuko And Hiro” does. And there's nothing as obviously Pop, as the big singles on their previous albums – more a cohesive set of songs that kind of reflect what it's like to be Blur now. But what about the Blur of 1993? If they thought Modern Life Was Rubbish then, where's the songs that somehow could have been created to reflect this, most divisive of political eras? There's no commentary on this world, as such, but still a solid set of Blur songs. We change, bands change, and music changes, and, wouldn't it be unfair to think the Blur of 1995 are the same as the Blur of 2015? (They're hardly AC/DC and haven't been set in solid rock since birth). “The Magic Whip” is a record that may reward repeated exposure over time, and being the first Blur record in over a decade, perhaps there's a sense of importance it doesn't deserve. It's a good album, but not great. Time will tell. It's mile ahead of the understated “Everyday Robots”, but I can't help but feel that Albarn is still drifting ever further into his own world, and sometimes, he might need to be brought back to earth.