Blur – The Magic Whip

4 out of 5

Label: Warner Bros.

Produced by: Stephen Street

I got worried there for a while.

I still cherish all my Blur albums, as well as the Albarn-related material occurring during their initially active area.  But post Think Tank, when Damon the slacker-youth-turned-hipster-intelligentsia pop star disappeared behind a wall of worldly travels and somewhat random, one-off projects, I’d hear bits and pieces of magic on things like The Good, The Bad & The Queen, Rocket Juice and the Moon, or the latter Gorillaz discs, but never enough to equal a really satisfying listen.  I found I’d rarely return to the records unless actively making myself do so – i.e. “it’s been a while since I listened to this”.

The solo release Everyday Robots was an unfortunate negative turning point.  It’s definitely a pleasant listen, but it was the first Blur-related ephemera I really had to work to like.  …That is, I don’t really like it.  The lyrics are pretty old man uninsightful, and the music runs out of ideas after a few tracks.  Was this announcing a future in which I no longer picked up Damon’s stuff with interest?

That Graham Coxon – notably having left the band during Think Tank – had returned for Magic Whip was a good indication.  That the lead track on the  That the lead track on the album – Lonesome Street – had the poppy, light-hearted zest of the Blur of yore was the best sign of all.  But Magic Whip was by no means a “comeback” attempt, mimicking past classics; that opener carried with it years of maturity and confidence, delivered with calming cheer (well served by Stephen Street’s warm production) and not the sort of jittery affront that typified earlier Albarn / Coxon compositions.

The remainder of the album follows suit – though certainly changes up the styles and approach along the way – resulting in the first Blur disc that works, fully, from beginning to end, even if its short on singles beyond track one. The album’s charmingly relaxed durability might very well be due to the long and yet spontaneous route that was taken for the recording process: an impromptu 5-day jam in Tokyo between reunion tour dates resulting in tracks which Coxon would secret away to spruce up with Street, bringing in James and Rowntree to shape things up further, then eventually re-presented to Albarn who would travel back to Tokyo for some post re-inspiration.  You can’t hear this drawn out process in terms of the compositions, which sound absolutely of a like mind, but the somewhat circuitous route seemed to produce a work which was passed through several hands to be molded to near perfection.  The music itself is an interesting expression of this: songs, in general, don’t announce their hook, but rather burn into it, starting off with gentle electronics before, minutes in, it suddenly clicks how dense and toe-tappable the track has become.  …Until the final songs, which go full on Cracker accessible alt-rock.  (I like Cracker a heck of a lot, but it’s an amusing Americana appropriation for Blur, and feels a little light compared to what comes before it.)

Track for track, the disc ends up sounding like a more enthused take on Everyday Robots: themes which were exhausting or contemplative for Albarn solo become fodder for a group of long-time, seasoned players to “discuss” as a forty-minute rap session that peaks and flows with a natural rhythm.  Along with that comes a somewhat staid aspect to the lyrics, though.  While nowhere near as tepid as Robots, the wizened view of the modern world through the glitzy mash of Tokyo culture is very conversational; there’s not a lot of fresh or compelling insight on Magic Whip, but it’s an enjoyable conversation to sit in on.  And combined with the amazing songcraft, it’s a conversation you’re likely to have multiple times.