Sunday, August 2, 2015

Album Review: Blur - The Magic Whip (2015)

I've never been a big Damon Albarn fan. I think I was probably a convert to Blur's Modern Life is Rubbish album for a brief time in the Nineties, I enjoyed the first Gorillaz album, and I've admired some of Albarn's production work. But that's not really a huge amount to hang a hat on over the course of more than two decades, and I've generally found his forays into afrobeat and other "solo" and side projects rather ordinary. Nevertheless, a brand new Blur album is still a relatively newsworthy event, so I thought I'd take a sneaky peek at what the 2015 version of the band has to offer.

Conceived and recorded in Hong Kong, The Magic Whip is Blur's first studio album since Think Tank in 2003, and the band's eighth overall. The album presents such a hybrid mix of the many different styles that kept the band's music so fresh and vital all those years ago, some pundits have dared to call it a "return to form" ... though after more than a decade away, it's perhaps a little harsh to suggest the band had "lost form". It's more likely they'd simply lost phone numbers.

Even after such a long period apart, the album is immediately identifiable as being a Blur album – with prototype Blur eccentricity and unpredictably right at its heart. The string-laden opener 'Lonesome Street' instantly reminds us that one of Blur's best loved party tricks is the one that invokes a keen sense of nostalgia, and it’s an ideal way to kick things off. With the rocky guitar stabs of first single ‘Go Out’ we’re then reminded of just how important Graham Coxon is to the chemistry of the band. Coxon's skills had largely been rendered superfluous to requirements during the recording of Think Tank, so his return here is a welcome development. ‘Go Out’ is classic Blur in that brooding, yearning for something, kind of way.

There's some pretty good stuff all the way through. From the beautiful simplicity of the acoustic ‘Ice Cream Man’, which is probably the album’s highpoint (for me), to the gentle psychedelia of ‘Ghost Ship’, the Asian flavours of ‘Pyongyang’, and the simple formula pop of ‘Ong Ong’, it’s almost as though they’ve never been away. In keeping with some of Albarn’s more recent work, there’s afrobeat textures on ‘There Are Too Many of Us’, and an electro-funk feel to closer ‘Mirrorball’. The Magic Whip is a veritable feast in terms of musical diversity.

Having said all of that, the album is also something of a sleeper or slow burner, and it took quite a few listens for me to fully get my head around it. I picked up my copy of The Magic Whip as far back as April or May, so this review has been a long time coming. Rather like the album itself.

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