Tuesday, May 05, 2015

A 99 cone please: Blur's The Magic Whip

Now, I'm not going to drag up all that Britpop brouhaha because it was 20 years ago and the world has moved on. But to hear a brand new Blur album, 13 years after their last studio release and a massive 16 years since they launched one as a fourpiece, messes with the head.

Because there is much about The Magic Whip, released last week, which seems unaged, timeless even. And yet, for the rest of us, the difference between the salad days of Britpop and now is the distance between carefree abandon and the burden of mortgages, middle-aged spread, grey hair and random bladder-related ailments.

20 years is, though, a long time in any rock band's history. Imagine how The Beatles might have sounded in 1986, twenty years on from Revolver? Would it have been, like so much of that period, a cacophany of over-production, Fairlight samples and Simmons drums? With added Jeff Lynne for good measure...

Thankfully, then, Blur have managed to bridge the decades effortlessly with The Magic Whip. It's opening track, Lonesome Street, harks back to the bop-a-long past - a chugg-a-chugg Country House rhythm coupled with Damon Albarn's maudlin take on modern life (which is rubbish, in case you weren't aware) and the mundanity of taking the "5:14 from East Grinstead". Perhaps disingenuously, it has even earned the nod of approval from one time bête noire Liam Gallagher. How times change.

In reality, so much has passed since Messrs Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree were last a recording fourpiece. Albarn has pursued polymath offshoots in Chinese opera and smartarse collaborations with street artists and old punks, Graham Coxon has honed his somewhat underrated skills as an exquisite guitar-based singer songwriter, Alex James took up being a posh farmer and Roundtree returned to his criminal legal practice.

Given all this, it was hard to predict what The Magic Whip would deliver, especially given the somewhat accidental way it came about - the result of a Hong Kong studio jam session two years ago during a tour, with Coxon resurrecting interest in the recordings at the end of last year and Albarn adding lyrics to complete the album.

Improvisation led to 13 and Think Tank - their previous studio albums - but The Magic Whip has the air of a relaxed, Sunday afternoon day-off, Coxon in particularly delivering fluid, understated guitar riffs, if aimlessly plucking out motifs while kicking back on a settee.

Picture: Facebook/Blur

The album is a mix of the joyful and the warm, contemplative and the cold, with frequent lapses into the reflective mood of Albarn's introspective Everyday Robots, released a year ago to the week. All of which gives us gems like the understated New World Towers, Thought I Was A Spaceman and the standout My Terracotta HeartOng Ong returns to singalongaBlur, while Mirroball - nothing to do with Elbow, you may like to know - is another wonderfully woozy afternoon of a song, with beautifully expressive guitar work from Coxon.

Pyongyang mixes the dystopian sparsity of Bowie and Brian Eno's Warszawa, with Albarn recalling a visit to North Korea to create, it must be said, a beautifully bleak postcard. The subject of There Are Too Many Of Us won't come as any great surprise, either - literally, too many of us "living in tiny houses" (in the country and elsewhere). Not exactly uplifting, but somehow, Albarn's hangdog outlook doesn't grate as much you'd expect.

Picture: Facebook/Blur
Lightening the mood, Ghost Ship is a playful piece of blue-eyed soul, seemingly cast in idyllic waters with James plunking away at an ice-cold glass of Chardonnay's worth of summer bass, redolent of nu-soul one-hit-wonder Omar's There's Nothing Like This.

Ice Cream Man might be comparable with the sort of whimsy of Ernold Same, The Great Escape's nod to Pink Floyd's Arnold Layne, but in trying to be quirky, it tries too hard and misses. That, though is probably the only miss on the album.

While The Magic Whip throws up few real surprises, it certainly isn't the comfortable pair of mail order drawstring trousers it might easily be. Blur aren't pretending to be the the 20 years-hence version of their younger selves, even if photographic evidence doesn't suggest much of an ageing process.

But everyone - Albarn, Coxon, James and Roundtree contribute with an assuredness, as if returning to an artisan hobby that had been packed away under a spare upstairs bed.

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