As the UK goes to the vote, Blur’s The Magic Whip sits atop the album chart just as it should. Repeated listens reveal that Graham Coxon may just be right in calling it the group’s finest album.
THERE’S LITTLE JOKERSIDE ENJOYS MORE THAN A COMPARISSON, BUT THIS ONE IS POETICALLY GIFTWRAPPED FOR TWO OF THE GREATEST BRITISH FOUR-PIECE BANDS IN BRITISH HISTORY. You can probably guess both by now. In the winter of 1969 the Beatles, already strained from their recent White Album sessions, were quickly encouraged into a new recording marathon by Paul McCartney. The idea behind what was intended to produce the Get Back sessions, was live jamming, returning to the band’s live and productive roots, free from the artifice of their last few album. Oh, and under the constant surveillance of documentary cameras. It seems inevitable now that, despite the new talent that came in behind the organ and recording desk to bolster the Fab Four and loyal producer George Martin, those sessions resulted in the band’s darkest days. Members lost then retrieved, the album shelved. And it still wasn’t over. We’re fortunate that all Beatles soon regrouped to record the disparate but altogether more friendly Abbey Road Sessions. But their split was all the more painful when John Lennon stole off to producer Phil Spector with the tapes that would be reassembled for the Let It Be album, eventually emerging a month after the pre-eminent force in pop music ended in 1970.
Jump forward four decades and history repeated. But this time it wasn’t the rhythm guitarist but the lead guitarist of a British four-piece who snuck off to a producer with the band’s jamming sessions. This time it was a member who had seemingly, impossibly, emerged from a prolonged departure from his band, not one heading into definite hiatus. And he even had the blessings of his band-mates. And this time, those tapes (if only they still were) weren’t gifted to a left-field originator of anything like the wall of sound; they found their way back to Stephen Street, the producer as indelibly linked to Blur as George Martin was to the Beatles.
So, it’s a safe bet Damon Albarn won’t be releasing The Magic Whip Naked in three decades time – although that certainly may play well in some markets.
What’ve You Got?
The Magic Whip is an album that rewards over time. It’s a difficult, awkward child in many ways – and one that could be forgiven for feeling unwanted. The reports following Blur’s ad hoc recording session in Hong Kong in May 2013 weren’t optimistic, with fans consoling themselves that at least the band had stepped into a studio for longer than one song. But that time, it turned out, was just too short. Albarn lamented that lyrics hadn’t been laid down at the time and so those jamming sessions – the band’s primary style of recording since 1997’s Blur – seemed destined to drift away. Until Stephen Street and Coxon did their magic. Some London additions from the four-piece later, some lyrics topped up by Albarn taking another stop-over in Hong Kong later… And earlier this year the band, and particularly Albarn, found themselves rather surprisingly announcing a new LP. And the result, although it shouldn’t be surprising, is that The Magic Whip is a unifying triumph that rubs in how difficult that star shaped hole has been to fill in the 16 years since the four-piece last recorded an album together.
Modern Life is Rubbish is a great reference here. Their second album, little regarded in 1993, much revered now, rears its head in The Magic Whip on countless occasions, not least the opening track. But then, only Leisure at a push fails to squirm into the mix of calypso, synth drum n’ bass, synth and arms reaching out to half a century of rock. That was the album, the band’s second and first outstanding album that culminated in the rapid rise/slide to Britpop and a turn from America that would last a good four years. And now deserves every bit of validation The Magic Whip lends it.
Hong Kong Low
Albarn teasingly referred to The Magic Whip as the band’s Berlin album. It could never be as simple as replacing the German capital with Hong Kong, but in many ways that follows through. Hong Kong permeates every song, from direct lyrical references to musical flourishes and an outlook removed from 2003’s Think Tank. But perhaps more tellingly, it carries a cohesive, bottled fire similar to the one that runs through Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. It’s not split down the line like 1977’s Low, but as you’d expect from a Blur album, it doesn’t shy away from experimentation, nor politics. Bowie’s own triumphant return two years ago carried overtly political songs, as much as it looked back on an incredible career. And this being Albarn, this being Blur – the same is true in the mix of The Magic Whip, yet its effortlessly more contemporary and wary than Bowie’s fine stabs.
12 years ago Think Tank left us on a cliff-hanger: “You can be with me”. The Magic Whip opens on a confrontational point with Lonesome Street: “What’ve you got? Mass-produced in somewhere hot”. A call to action, made in China, referencing East Grinstead. And an instantly discordant chorus with a back and forth between Allbarn and Coxon. It makes a disarmingly good companion piece to Modern Life’s For Tomorrow. It’s a jam-packed tour through several eras and facets of Blur, ending in repeated refrain of “Going down to Lonesome Street…” It may have taken the third single spot, but it shamelessly announces that Blur are back.
Modern Life makes itself again in the sixth track, I Broadcast – a glorious introduction that sucks you in instrument by instrument into classic Blur like an irresistibly catchy 50’s riff would draw you into the first, legendary rock ’n’ roll bands. Like Marty McFly wwheeling out Johnny B. Goode in the future rather than the past it’s so Blur you can almost hear the lyrics before they come in.
The Soft Touch
Second track New World Towers is a nursery rhyme and one of the album tracks that hark most to Albarn’s solo projects. Back to Bowie, it also recalls those soft reminiscences of Where are we Now, but without the purposed recall to the Berlin era. It’s pure and observational, but the rather Eastern guitar riff that steals into two breaks with hovering chants and light synth that floats off like an accordion couldn’t show the difference of new Blur better: this is a harmonious unit, never at risk of being overshadowed by either Coxon or Albarn’s musical interests.
The album lays down its undulating pattern with fourth track Ice Cream Man, the song that gifted the rather surprising, yet fitting, album name. Gizmos wheel out at the start in their own spin on an ice cream van, as Albarn intones one of his singy-talky fantasy speeches. Amid it all, there’s an undeniable creep to the monotonous, matter of fact concept – the ice cream man “parked at the end of the road” and the “Lantern Men marching down ‘til dawn”. And it’s quite marked compared with the melancholy tone that permeates many of the softer songs. Nowhere is that truer than My Terracotta Heart, the strongest candidate for the obligatory “song about Blur’s inner turmoils” slot. The lyrics, lilting observations like “When we were more like brothers, that was years ago…” is possibly closest to the baton that Think Tank dropped, and certainly doesn’t sink as low as the all-time misery of 13’s No Distance Left to Run. This isn’t an album about loss after all. And as if to prove that point, following track Ghost Ship runs for the bay with a late calypso interlude and more than one allusion to hugely important Blur pre-cursor The Specials. Steeped in Hong Kong references, from Kowloon to Lantau’s Po Lin monastery, its slinky chorus lift the, again, melancholy lyrics to one of the standouts on an album not packed with identifiable singles.
Hyde Park Moments
In their place, amid the unity come some classics though. Notable if the fifth track, Thought I was a Spaceman, no doubt with an eye on the forthcoming Hyde Park headlining slot as much as previous ones. It’s fine trip back to space, although less a Chris de Burgh’s spaceman than one of Bowie’s, especially with ridiculously compact throwaway lines like “raise hell” splintering the dreamy recollection. A slight, picked melody creeps in like it had in 13’s Battle but with plenty of time to take in tracks from Albarn and Coxon’s solo careers. It’s a searching song, “Digging out my heart” that bursts in a broad dance wave where, as many times during The Magic Whip, the chords spill down in a way that should rule it out of football montages. Until the sparking peak of Coxon’s lead that is.
Third track Go Out was the unsurprising first single, heavy of beat, sparky of strings, overlaid with an electronic warble. A pub song, purposefully stuttered over while the musical jangle builds to a tumult over the top. It’s about as close as this gets to the punk sided Blur of old. At this point the lows have risen, the punk highs have fallen disarmingly. The Magic Whip’s not a place you’ll find a Globe Alone or B.L.U.R.E.M.I. – instead, in a wave of evenness there are the odd sparks of dark rusty nails scraping down a stone wall. All that means there’s a lack of distinct hits, and even Think Tank had those, but the overall quality is quite extraordinary from such a short initial session.
We’re never fully brought back to Britain though. In the album’s waves, Ong Back could have been Tender a decade ago, as reassuringly familiar as it is. Packing in Hong Kong references, it sits with the album closer, a typical untypical one, as a note to the East that gives The Magic Whip heart and soul.
The Great Escape
There are Too Many of Us kicks off with an unrelenting military beat, and a sharp tango to go with it. One of the more politically visceral tracks, it’s all loose mantra lined with sharp strings. Wandering back to that line of precognition last found in The Great Escape it’s surely that polliticism that pushed it to second single status. While it hardly allows itself too much melody, it’s certainly anthemic.
Real album stand-out Pyongyang may scream politics in its title, but instead unravels a strong, complex tapestry that recalls mid-Pink Floyd. Its rather haunting, sentimental lyrics and high melody are instantly timeless. Here’s the great ‘first person’ of latter Blur looking down from a window. How strange in an album steeped in Eastern sounds and melodies this sends a distinct tingly line straight back to the jangled and rather throwaway closer of The Great Escape, Yuko and Hiro.
Out of Time
You expect consummate production and instrumentation on a Blur album. But in what might be the band’s most together hour, Coxon’s softer but no less brilliant guitar complements Albarn’s ever widening gyre of a taste like never before. All it took was a 16 year split. Surprisingly, Blur have crafted a monumental piece, doing exactly what they’ve always done well: distilling pure Blur through older eyes and arms and different sensibilities. On the way they somehow manage to confront and reference their glorious decade and a half at the top on the way. Perhaps it’s only the depth of the band’s own surprise that could risk it being the end. But surely, surely it can’t be the end. Much as The Magic Whip would be a fitting Abbey Road if it was, a stronger and more compelling closing statement than Think Tank, things are missing.
The recurring “Hold close to me” closes the album on Mirrorball, ensuring there’s not a hint of secret tracks or codas singular instrumentals… that’s a whole lot of Blur to rediscover and there’s clearly more left. Blur have plenty of room, and time, to take their sci-fi folk up on to greater galaxies yet.
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