Blur – The Magic Whip album review
To say Blur have had a profound impact on the shape of modern pop music for the best part of two decades is perhaps an understatement. From their beginnings as a borderline shoegaze outfit with Leisure, to the chart topping britpop cheekiness of Parklife, all the way to the Pavement esque grit of Blur, they really have done it all. Not only this, but they have expanded and grown in an ever improving way, an impressive feat for any band. Naturally, when news came seemingly out of nowhere that the band would be releasing its first album in over 12 years, and with Graham Coxon no less, expectations were always going to be high.
‘Lonesome Street’ kicks the album off, which just radiates that classic Blur sound. A catchy guitar riff from Coxon drives the song while Albarn’s amazingly preserved voice delivers that familiar quaint tone we love so much. This could have easily been on Parklife or Modern Life is Rubbish. ‘New World Towers’ takes the mood down, and, interestingly, sounds like it could be a Gorillaz tune, or even something from Damon’s Everyday Robots. Nevertheless, Coxon’s jangly guitar work here is unmistakably Blur, and establishes a delightful sense of melancholy that the Essex boys do so well.
‘Go Out’ follows, the first tune the band released before the album’s release. The chorus is simple but infectiously catchy, as Albarn sings “I go out to the local” over walls of fuzz and a very tight baseline. This is an excellent example of how well Blur can craft songs with seemingly very little to them, something they have done brilliantly for twenty years. The peculiar ‘Ice Cream Man’ follows, featuring a heavy dose of synthesiser and sounds almost like a nurse rhyme. It’s ultimately a tad forgettable, but again sounds more like an early Gorillaz track that somehow found its way on to the album.
Keeping with the melancholy electronic feel, ‘Thought I was a Spaceman’ is a beautiful track. The ambient volume swells of the string section play off the sampled drum sounds phenomenally, and Albarn’s vocals are again absolutely top notch. The talent he has when telling stories through the tunes has always been remarkable, and has remained as such. Alex James’ bass work must be mentioned here too. He gives the tracks an amazing drive, especially here. The bouncy feel of the samples and bass really colour the song tremendously. ‘I Broadcast’ is next, and it is an absolute guitar tune. It’s two minutes of noisy indie pop that could have fitted on the group’s eponymous fifth album easily. Having said this, the recorded version doesn’t quite pack the same punch as we might have expected after seeing its debut on Jools Holland not long before. In any case, it is a top tune all the same.
The mood is brought down to a mellow tone once again with ‘My Terracotta Heart’, a more dark sounding ballad backed by an eerie guitar and more sampled percussive sounds. The string section adds a lot of substance to the album, especially on this track. There Are Too Many Of Us comes next, which is an album highlight, and probably the peak of the Gorillaz likeness. The marching drums combined with the staccato feel of the string section motif are a deadly combination, and it results in a very powerful track. ‘Ghost Ship’ lifts the mood with its uplifting vocals and groovy bass over some chugging sparkly chords. Listening to this tune feels like floating on a river. Its also slightly reminiscent of some later Suede albums like A New Morning.
After the more eerie and spacey sounding ‘Pyongyang’, the joyful ‘Ong Ong’ treats us to a once off campfire like singalong track in the same vein as the 1999 classic, ‘Tender’. Whether or not you think the song has as much integrity or meaning as the rest of the album, its undeniably catchy, and will have you singing along before the second chorus. Mirrorball closes the album, another melancholy and somewhat gloomy number driven by Albarn’s ever pensive vocal. Coxon’s guitar sings here, with jangling riffs everywhere. The string section returns as Albarn sings “Hold Close to me”, before the beautiful harmonies and echoing guitars fade out and the album draws to a close.
Blur have made a statement with this album. As if we needed reminding that they are one of the most accomplished bands to ever emerge out of Britain, this is it. The Magic Whip is a remarkable return to form, and easily holds up against its predecessors, and maybe even beats one or two. Be sure to catch them at Electric Picnic this year, it will not be one to miss.
Review by Finn O’Reilly