Has Damon Albarn and co. delivered another Britrock classic? Luke grabs his headphones to give us his verdict.
Your guess is as good as mine on how many whips Parlophone had to crack to get Blur back into the recording studio after they first announced their reunion six years ago, but finally, here it is – their first album in twelve years, The Magic Whip. Originating from jamming sessions in Hong Kong’s Avon Studios in the five days after a slot on Japan’s Tokyo Rocks Music festival was unexpectedly cancelled, the songs on The Magic Whip provide ample evidence that there is still plenty of fuel left in the tank for Blur. In fact, I’d say the creative spark continually alight on this LP proves Blur more than deserve their place in the annals of Britrock history.
Straight off the bat with an immediately familiar blast of Great Escape-era Britpop “Lonesome Street,” it’s easy to see why guitarist Graham Coxon’s absence was so keenly felt on their last album Think Tank. Coxon’s fingerprints are all over this new album, presumably in a conscious attempt to make up for his acrimonious departure from the band back in 2002. In actuality, it was Coxon’s decision to enlist producer Stephen Street’s help so that they could both pour over the thirty hours of material laid down in Hong Kong to try and give the songs some shape.
Since Damon Albarn was on a tour promoting his solo album, Everyday Robots, the risk was that Blur’s impromptu recordings would sit in the archives and be forgotten about. Therefore, Coxon saw it as his duty to dredge them up and work on them, writing new song elements and even re-recording guitar parts. Despite being largely instrumental and peppered with unfinished lyrics, Coxon and Street presented Albarn with the bones of what they believed could form the basis of Blur’s comeback album and Albarn was immediately inspired. Once he had jetted back to Hong Kong, Albarn finished writing the lyrics for many of the tracks and the rest – as they say – is history.
Albarn’s social commentary on modern technology and disconnectedness surfaces on this album, echoing many of the sentiments we’ve already heard him express on Everyday Robots. “New World Towers” acknowledges the quasi-religious devotion people have with social media (“log in your name and pray”) while the closer “Mirrorball” is a surf-guitar tinged sign-off for weary Facebook trawlers (“so before you log out, hold close to me”). Overall, production-wise, the claustrophobia of the Hong Kong studio twinned with Albarn’s vaguely sci-fi references to technological dislocation and emotional turbulence lend The Magic Whip an air of otherworldly melancholy, practically in orbit thanks to its aloof and withering lyrical observations.
Albarn’s love of forlorn yet thought-provoking balladry is interspersed with Coxon’s more energetic blasts of Kinks-ian flair we’ve come to expect of Blur, many of which often hark back to their past Britpop glories. “Lonesome Street” does enough to doff their caps to their mid-90’s heyday without being too parochial, although it does invite Coxon to mimic Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd at one point in the middle eight. David Bowie is also a clear inspiration, particularly on “I Thought I Was a Spaceman” and “There Are Too Many of Us,” the latter of which sees Albarn muse on overpopulation and recount his experience of witnessing the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis from his hotel room window whilst it was on TV at the same time (“For a moment I was dislocated, by terror on a loop elsewhere”).
“I Broadcast” is a decent mockney retread of the punkier moments one can easily find on Modern Life is Rubbish and Parklife, albeit with modern lyrical references to industrialised modern tourism and possibly even the Twitter age (“I broadcast, buzzing on another day now”). Also to please the faithful, “Ong Ong” is another traditional yet distinctly Blur-ish pub singalong which recalls Lola Versus the Powerman-era Kinks, all arms aloft and la la la-ing straight into the band’s next live set list, no doubt, although thankfully it is by no means a celebration of the Little Englander.
The noisy squall of “Go Out” collides with a lumbering groove like “Trimm Trabb” and “Coffee & TV” crammed into a blender, chopping itself up into a crunky stomp and perforated by Albarn’s purposefully monotonous vocals. In arguably decrying Westerners in Far East Asia who revel in “imperious design, the purpose of luxury” and, conversely, the lonely and “greedy go-getter in the sky bar,” “Go Out” captures the knife edge of cultural differences on which our hemispheres teeter.
To Blur’s credit, the internationalist lyrical perspective championed by Albarn prevents this The Magic Whip from being a straightforward nostalgia trip for Blur fans. For instance, there are certainly still glimpses of the sonic experimentation they embraced on Blur and 13. “I Thought I Was a Spaceman” sees Coxon’s guitar work build into a crescendo of My Bloody Valentine-esque proportions and “Ghost Ship” could almost have been at home on Gorillaz last album Plastic Beach, with its blue-eyed soul crossed with dub-reggae vibe, ably assisted with Coxon’s delightful upper fret work.
However, I never thought in a million years that I’d hear Blur play a song like “Ice Cream Man” again, building as it does on a glitchy sound effect whilst Albarn nostalgically sings about his youth eating screwballs and chocolate chip ice cream (“Here comes the ice cream man, parked at the end of the road”). It’s from this song that The Magic Whip takes its name (“with a flick of his magic whip all the people in the party froze”), though the idea of a sinister ice cream salesman does rear its head and hints at something darker (“shaded from the sun was his intention”) perhaps implying that “whip” might even be meant in the parliamentary sense.
Interestingly, in a thirty-minute documentary on the making of the album, Albarn tends to attribute the title of The Magic Whip to the level of both state and social control in some Far Eastern countries. “I kind of sort of understand why there’s so much control,” Albarn explains, “I don’t necessarily agree with many aspects of that control, but I think it is the magic whip. The ‘whip’ is control but the ‘magic’ is, kind of, it’s very prevalent in the Far East.”
Avoiding the post-Iraq War political sloganeering of Think Tank, Albarn’s lyrical preoccupations on The Magic Whip are more nuanced, inclined to be more oblique and favour abstract metaphors. “I Thought I Was a Spaceman” seemingly hints at MH370 in a song about failing to find spiritual landfall (“I thought I found my black box, washed up on the shore”) and “My Terracotta Heart” is a veiled tribute to Coxon, expressing hope that their friendship doesn’t end abruptly like it did before, with Coxon’s pretty guitar riff acting as a spiritual cousin to 13‘s “No Distance Left to Run” (which in itself was a touching tribute to Albarn’s ex-girlfriend Justine Frischmann).
Near the close of the album, “Pyongyang” is a dark and ominous ballad detailing Albarn’s secretive tour of North Korea, documenting his visit to the Mausoleum of the Great Leaders and expressing hope that the dictatorial regime is on the wane (“The pink light that bathes the Great Leaders is fading”). Albarn’s eagerness to imbue his songs with a politically aware and socially conscious heft is sorely lacking in modern music, I’m sure you’ll agree, so fair play to Blur for sticking true to their principles. It’s a rare thing these days and it would’ve been all-to-easy for them to just tread water.
What’s clear to me is that The Magic Whip would not have happened without the emotional investment of Graham Coxon, so this automatically sets it in stark contrast with Think Tank. Even the recording of 13 was strained, so all in all, I regard The Magic Whip as being the band’s best album since 1997’s self-titled LP Blur. I sincerely hope it is not their last, but if it were, it’d be a fitting swansong. Encapsulating everything fans love about Blur, from catchy pop, to wry ballads, to shoegaze-y pedal FX, to “Song 2″-ish distortion, The Magic Whip is a rip-roaring success and does more than enough to justify its own existence.
Well done, lads. Have an ice cream. With a Flake.