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Blur - The Magic Whip
Reviewed by Q, May 2015

For Tomorrow

Six years after reuniting, Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave finally take a bold step forwards.

cover"I've no doubt we could make a fantastic record together," said Damon Albarn in 2009, not long after he had been reconciled with Graham Coxon over an Eccles cake and the two of them had taken the first steps towards putting Blur back together. "It'd be very interesting." A few seconds later, he was asked about the extremely variable track records of musicians who had reunited after several years apart and tried making new music. "I'm not interested in other people's track records," he shot back.

It was a very Albarn-ish thing to say, though the challenge he affected to shrug off was real. For most bands, re-forming with some semblance of credibility is surely hard enough, and attempting to equal one's past recorded triumphs is the kind of feat that plenty of people sensibly decide to leave well alone. The Stone Roses, you have may have noticed, obviously decided that discretion was the better part of valour; so did Blur's one-time contemporaries Pulp.

Judging by the six-year gap between their re-formation and the appearance of The Magic Whip, Blur may well have been plagued by similar doubts. Sessions in 2012 with William Orbit were apparently abandoned, and when they used an unforeseen five-day break in Hong Kong to make music in a studio in the early summer of 2013, the results were also canned. Albarn said they had come up with some "great tunes", but in the city's crushing heat, the band had wilted, leaving music that was unlikely to be completed. "Sometimes," he said, "if you can't do it all at once, it dissipates."

But then look what happened. In November 2014, Graham Coxon returned to those recordings in the company of Stephen Street (producer of most of the Blur music that defines their legend), and began fettling-up the Hong Kong music. Albarn eventually added lyrics, and, belatedly, an album began to cohere though obviously it was being created in somewhat odd circumstances, by a group who seem to have dipped in and out of the creative process.

Not surprisingly, then, The Magic Whip is no Parklife. Contrary to Albarn's claim that it is nothing less than a "proper Blur album", if another record follows it which is currently anyone's guess we might come to think of The Magic Whip as what the modern music-biz argot calls "parenthetical": an art-for-art's-sake piece, la U2's Zooropa or Beck's Mutations, intended to be judged on only its own terms. There again, if the music here is more about mood, place and texture than commercial oomph, that should hardly come as a surprise: so, to some extent, were both 1999's 13, and the largely Coxon-less Think Tank (the latter, Albarn now seems to think, was something of a mistake, which The Magic Whip is meant to avenge).

It begins straightforwardly enough. Lonesome Street has echoes of the rhythm they themselves used to call the "Blur stomp", clear nods to The Kinks, and in a passage sung by Coxon, an obvious tribute to his beloved Syd Barrett. If such a thing exists, it is reasonably stereotypical Blur music, delivered with real charm as is I Broadcast (a thrashingly close relative of Parklife's Jubilee or 1993's Advert), and the pre-album trailer single Go Out, with its faint echoes of 1994's London Loves.

The rest tends to be pitched somewhere rather different, as evidenced by a lot of electronic percussion, flashes of the sun-kissed grooves one usually associates with Gorillaz, and tracks as amorphous and fuzzy as the six-minute Thought I Was A Spaceman and There Are Too Many Of Us. These two are less fully-realised songs than atmospheric explorations of a single musical idea, lacking any moment of real lift-off a sign, perhaps, of studio-time having simply run out.

That said, once you have adjusted to the absence of anything resembling a Big Hit the closest they get is Ong Ong, a threechord wonder so breezily simple you can almost picture them laughing what burns through just about everything is Blur's enduring talent for evoking the anxious overload of modern urban living, and Albarn's knack of making music with a profound sense of place. Where once was London, there is now not just the city in which the music first came to life, but the North Korean capital Pyongang. Albarn's visit there circa 2014 is captured in a song of the same name ("The mausoleum has fallen/And the perfect avenues seem empty"), which pretty wonderfully frames its author's obvious sense of uneasy fascination and deep culture shock.

Best of all is My Terracotta Heart, a glimpse of lovelorn sadness built around a beautiful Albarn vocal and cascading Coxon guitar line, which oozes real magic, but quietly so. It highlights something that takes at least six or seven plays of The Magic Whip to uncoil: the fact that in its own flawed, modest, off-kilter way, this might turn out to be one of the most accomplished records of the year.

DOWNLOAD: Lonesome Street, I Broadcast, Ong Ong, My Terracotta Heart

star star star star  (4/5) John Harris
 

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