- 23 Apr 15
Intimate, global, old, new. Blur's long-playing comeback is a remarkably effortless-sounding journey.
It's a trick often attempted by the British film industry with mixed (to be kind) results. What do you do with a bunch of beloved comedy characters when there is significant demand to supplant a TV sitcom to the big screen or eke out another lucrative sequel? Why, send them on their holidays of course! From 1973's Holiday On The Buses right up to the Inbetweeners movies, the 'fish out of water' gambit of shifting the story to a different location is an easy substitute for, well, a new and original story.
Truly, comedy plus time and distance equals tragedy.
It's a leap of disciplines to the music world, but it's a leap my mind was making when a Blur gig at Tokyo Rocks was cancelled in May 2013 and Damon Albarn announced from a stage at the AsiaWorld-Expo: "So we have a week in Hong Kong, and we thought it would be a good time to try and record another record."
Oh no, four years after reuniting and gigging the old stuff to huge crowds, Blur are going on their holidays...
Nothing was heard for another year-and-a-half, so the betting was the quartet gave it a go and realised their second honeymoon wasn't going to bear much worthwhile, fresh creative fruit. Phew.
It helped that one of three new songs that had emerged, 'Under The Westway', felt like such an apt coda to their tale. A stately ballad arriving before the 2012 Olympics, its heart and mouth was in London. It could have been almost parodic ("the Last Post sounds just like a love song" is a middle-aged Cool Britannia lyric if ever I heard one), but instead it was a graceful homecoming. The full circle complete on their home turf. A full stop that instantly joined their classics.
So when February 2015 rolls around and a Facebook feed brings you Zane Lowe sat excitably on a couch in a Chinese restaurant with an awkward Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave, who are here to tell us about their new LP, recorded in Hong Kong and heavily influenced by their time in the East, you couldn't help but worry.
For a split second. Then you couldn't help but think 'a whole new collection of Blur stuff, yuuusssss!'
Superlative-monger Lowe aside, there was no real need to feel uneasy; we were always in safe hands. 'Under The Westway' proved the old magic was still there and this was not a band that needed to make another record together, having ascended to the level of being called upon to headline Olympics Closing Ceremonies, like a new Who for the smartphone generation. In this day and age, an album ain't exactly a cash cow unless your Adele, Taylor or Ed.
So this was a creative scratch that needed itching. A case of unfinished business. When you consider that their last album, 2003's Think Tank barely featured the then-estranged Graham Coxon, you realise that had to be addressed. And when you think back to how the celestial guitar on closer 'Battery In Your Leg', the only Think Thank track with Coxon's six-string on it, was the highlight, you realise that could be very exciting news indeed.
It was Coxon, in fact, who made it all happen. After the lark they had jamming in Hong Kong, the recorded results seemed set to gather digital dust in a Macbook folder until the guitarist decided to do something about it. Always coming across like the most reluctant member in their former life, maybe he was making up for lost time and youthful strops. Whatever it was, what he salvaged from the sessions with Stephen Street last winter was strong enough to pique Albarn's interest. Melodies, vocals and words were required. At the start of the new year, the frontman headed back to Hong Kong solo, for inspiration.
The end result is The Magic Whip, an album far more vital and accomplished than it had any right to be.
Does it knock stripes off Modern Life Is Rubbish or Parklife? No, though it sits comfortably in that distinguished second-tier of albums Blur put out in the late '90s. You could be forgiven for thinking this is their magnum opus from some earlier reviews, but you can understand the initial critical reaction – they have certainly confounded expectations by picking up effortlessly where they left off at the turn of the century, without sounding the slightest bit stale.
Proceedings start with 'Lonesome Street', an insistent track that could jostle for position alongside the likes of 'For Tomorrow' and 'Chemical World'. There's talk of mass production going on "somewhere hot" but this is Blur meeting you in familiar surroundings, at London Bridge no less (from where they'll catch "the 5.14 to East Grinstead") before taking you to more exotic climes. Think 2009 comeback 'Fool's Day' and you're in the vicinity, while a Coxon middle-eight simultaneously inspires more nostalgia and knocks things off-kilter, calling on the ghost of Syd Barrett.
'Two World Towers' is somewhere else entirely, as concerns become global. Swimming in the same gorgeous waters Albarn found himself in on last year's Everyday Robots, this melancholic slow-burner is perhaps the first place people will point to when suggesting the singer dominates this record.
That would be off the mark, however. The Magic Whip could have come no source other than Blur. We can talk all day about the dynamic between Damon and Graham but when you dig down into their DNA, it is the rhythm section that often sets them apart. That famous 'Blur Bounce' is present and correct, Dave Rowntree's buoyant drums keeping everything in check and Alex James' aerodynamic and understated bass lines offering melodic layers.
'Go Out' was our first taste of The Magic Whip and it remains thrilling for its fuzzed-up 'Bugman' attack and Albarn's insouciant vocal.
The command of "To the local" will send beers flying through the air at summer gigs, but it's really another case of Blur pulling a fast one on the masses. This is a solo mission, a sad journey out to find a connection, any connection, in a strange town. It is one of the first moments when the disconnect between the four old friends getting together in Hong Kong to create this music and the singer returning solo to the same foreign land a year later to find his own words to it kicks in.
That tension is central to what makes The Magic Whip tick; what makes it such an alluring repeat listen. How we interact with each other and the ultimate solitude and futility of life crops up time and again. On 'Thought I Was A Spaceman', which focuses on a barren, post-apocalyptic Hyde Park and sonically is the most progressive they get, with nods to Bowie's Berlin period, this cold, alienated feel is rendered beautifully. 'There Are Too Many Of Us', however, finds Damon following the misanthropic road he's been travelling down of late to its end point, and finding a grey dead-end.
Coming after 'I Broadcast', which carries the clumsy tourist-y vibe many feared would infect the entire album, and 'My Terracotta Heart', which is fine but forgettably Damon-by-numbers, it closes the weakest segment of The Magic Whip.
The home straight, thankfully, is a complete success.
'Ghost Ship' has an airy disco feel that is impossible to resist, while 'Pyongyang' reveals itself after several spins to be the LP's sturdiest number. Detailing Albarn's journey to North Korea, it has an affecting chorus that quietly soars and finally intertwines with an equally hypnotic Coxon vocal. Again, you could say this is familiar territory for Damon outside Blur, but when you trace it all back, it reminds this writer most of his band's secretly adored album tracks. The sleepy likes of 'Blue Jeans' are touchstones, while the proper ancestor of the entire record is the sumptuously sad 'Yuko And Hiro' from The Great Escape.
"I never see you, we're never together, I love you forever...".
That kind of sentiment is echoed time and again here, coming from a similar location, but to add to its complexity, you often feel like Damon is singing directly to his best mate strumming away on the Telecaster. As such, the political becomes personal.
'Mirrorball' ends things on a typically wistful note, but perhaps the real climax is the 11th track, 'Ong Ong'. Recalling the purity of intent and melodic simplicity of Ash's 'Shining Light', it also has a touch of the British knees up about it. With a big-hearted refrain and la-la-las, it is sunshine bottled in song.
The simple message? No matter where Albarn's nearest and dearest find themselves, he will find himself singing "I wanna be with you."
Glad to hear it. In the end, location matters not. When this four get in a room together, they always hit the spot.