In many ways, Blur embodied British music in the nineties, from the band’s early alt-pop catch in pieces like “Parklife”, which made them the definition of ‘Brit-Pop’ (rivals Oasis were more ‘Brit-Rock’), to excursions in lo-fi energy like “Song #2” (woo-hoo!), and eventually even gospel and electronica on later records 13 and Think Tank. The latter also saw guitarist Graham Coxon (QRO live review) leave the band, and after that 2003 album the members went their various ways, from singer Damon Albarn’s many projects (Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Monkey) to drummer Dave Rowntree running for Parliament (QRO Musicians as Politicians). A reunion, including Coxon, began in 2009, with such high-profile gigs as playing the official after-party concert for the 2012 London Olympics, but no new material (and precious little American touring…). It seemed like just a nostalgia walk – Albarn even released a solo album last year (QRO review) – until this year’s surprise announcement of a new full-length that they actually made on their off time (after a Japanese festival was cancelled) in a studio in Hong Kong in 2012. The Magic Whip naturally leans towards their later, more artistic over poppy work, but it is a wonderful return of an act you had been waiting for.
First things first: this is not a revival of the early nineties Brit-pop Blur, with a puckish Albarn singing about “Girls & Boys”, “Sunday Sunday”, or “There’s No Other Way”. He’s too old for that, Blur’s too old for that, you’re too old for that, we’re too old for that (though bassist Alex James can still flip his bangs). Instead, it draws much more from their more intricate later work, as well as post-Blur efforts. This isn’t a record about the party or the park; it’s about after the party or what the park’s become these days.
One can tell this from the start with opener “Lonesome Street”, which nicely mixes Blur-upbeat & Blur-interesting. From there, though, it is loss that largely takes center stage on pieces such as “New World Towers”, distant “Ice Cream Man”, distant-into-bigger “Thought I Was a Superman”, ‘tronic loss “My Terracotta Heart”, and an almost anthem of alienation, “There Are Too Many of Us”. Okay, “Ghost Ship” brings a smooth, lounge-relaxed curveball right after “Superman”, but it’s back to loss with “Pyongyang”. There is a nice pick-me-up in “Ong Ong” after “Pyongyang”, but then the record ends on slow loss in a deserted club with “Mirrorball”. Hell, the Japanese bonus track is titled “Y’all Doomed”…
So if you were looking for the hyper Brit-pop of over twenty years ago, you’re not going to find it on The Magic Whip, but they’ll surely play those songs live (like at the free record release show today in New York that you couldn’t get tickets for…) – and that’s the only real criticism of the album (a relative criticism at that). Blur’s back, bay – woo-hoo!