In his review of Guns N’ Roses’ 15 year delayed comeback album, the author Chuck Klosterman proffered one of my favourite bits of music journalism ever when he said:
“Reviewing Chinese Democracy is not like reviewing music. It's more like reviewing a unicorn. Should I primarily be blown away that it exists at all?”
That’s about as neat a way of summarising my feelings about The Magic Whip as I’ve been able to muster. As a lifelong music obsessive whose love affair with the whole medium can be traced back to purchasing Parklife on cassette from Woolworths in Exmouth as a 9 year old, waiting for Blur’s first album with guitarist Graham Coxon since 1999 has been a bit like waiting for Christmas, if there hadn’t been a Christmas for 16 years, and you were a bit worried that Christmas might be shit now that you’re an adult (I agree, the line about the unicorn is better).
As such, my critical distance from this music is minimal. What follows is a spoiler-heavy trailer of what The Magic Whip sounds like, rather than too much in the way of specific unpicking of its merits, a task I’ll leave to someone more qualified. I think it’s pretty excellent, but what do I know? I’m a Blur expert.
The first thing you hear on Blur’s first album with Graham Coxon back in the fold since 13 is… his guitar! For someone who would have been quite happy for the new record just to have been a re-recording of Think Tank, but this time with Graham on it (and “Crazy Beat” not on it), this warms the heart more than I am able to divulge. Although Coxon’s role in the gestation of this LP – he worked on it in secret with producer Stephen Street, largely away from the rest of the band – might’ve suggested it was going to be full of atonal drones and angular guitar skronks, “Lonesome Street” is an early indication that this is far from the case. A song that could have easily fit on either Parklife or The Great Escape, it’s the sound of the quartet back behind the wheel rather than reinventing it. In so much as there is such a thing, it’s classic Blur; that signature Coxon trick of having a simple riff made out of strange chords and Damon’s shout outs to provincial English towns and modes of transport (““The 5:14 to East Grinstead” is about to get a lot busier) have it coming across like a first-person narrated “Tracy Jacks”.
I wanted this to be an album of Coxon feedback if I’m honest, but he clearly had other ideas. Perhaps not wishing to overload the skeletons of tunes he was working with, his guitar work on “New World Towers” (the title referencing the Hong Kong architecture that surrounded the recording studio) is decidedly minimal, all walking solos and gently strummed chords with acres of space in between them. Coxon has talked of wanting to make this song a “sci-fi “Greensleeves””, but what it bears most resemblance to is a lusher version of Damon Albarn’s 2014 solo LP Everyday Robots, or The Good The Bad & The Queen’s “The Bunting Song”; beautiful, somnambulant, light, airy, and far from the rushed jigsaw of a sound I was fearing from the tales surrounding its creation. Albarn fans needn’t worry that this is an overly Coxon heavy album, despite his lyric and melody writing being the last piece in the puzzle to reach completion.
THE GUITARS ON THIS THOUGH. Taught but also delightfully sloppy, sonically “Go Out” operates in that golden middle ground between noise and melody which has always been my favourite Blur territory. The first track to be publically aired from the album seems to have the band taking themselves as their primary influence, referencing both the squall of “Battle” and the swagger of “T.O.P.M.A.N.”, while Damon has paid this only slightly more attention lyrically than he did “Music Is My Radar” (a fine song held back by some ill-advised scatting and mumbling on the frontman’s part). Though in lesser hands this could be dismissed as navel-gazing, Blur’s back catalogue is diverse enough for it to count as a worthy source of stimulus, even for themselves; “Go Out” is a wildly different beast from what spawned it, even if references are easy to spot. Plus, you know when they play it live that the chorus is going to kick in like the heavy bit in “Trimm Trabb”, and I can’t wait for that.
I’d wager this is the kind of song that people who get rubbed up the wrong way by Damon Albarn would cite most readily – he’s winking knowingly at the same time as serving up melancholy, and I understand those two things are hard to reconcile - but it’s also what people who love him love him for too. By now, most people have chosen their camp on that one, and The Magic Whip is unlikely to prompt any changes of allegiance. “Ice Cream Man” is the most Gorillaz-indebted of all the songs on The Magic Whip, owing to the synth noises Coxon says he nicked from the vast collection on Albarn’s laptop, but cheap thrills are less the order of the day than when the cartoon monkeys are prancing around. Instead, it’s a meandering, solitary walk around town kind of character song, the latest in a long litany of them in the Albarn songbook. Yet this time, the character of the Ice Cream Man – whose Magic Whip gives the album its title – is painted as unshakably downtrodden about his surroundings, constantly “looking for something new”.
Much of The Magic Whip is themed around dislocation, usually from home or loved ones, but here our narrator seems detached not just from his environs but also himself, and reality in general. Taking the displaced melancholy of “Ice Cream Man” even further, it’s a rare instance of the first person pronoun “I” appearing in the title of a Blur song (on their previous seven albums, this happened just once, with “I’m Just A Killer For Your Love” – on The Magic Whip alone, it appears twice), suggesting that this is not a character we’re dealing with here, but an Albarn daydream. Telling the tale of a man convinced he’s on Mars only to find himself “digging up my heart in some distant sand dune” in Hyde Park, the first song they’ve written about the place since “Parklife” really couldn’t sound more different. Albarn, again sharing vocals with Coxon, seems like he’s spent more time on these lyrics than anything in years, while the Rowntree/James rhythm section – with the help of a pretty prominent drum machine – drive this forward like a more propulsive “He Thought Of Cars”. That’s a very good thing.
A song with such an off the cuff feel that dwelling on it too long would be missing the point, this is the sort of mid-record punky romp that Blur seem to need to include on every album (further reading: “BLUREMI”, “Chinese Bombs”, “We’ve Got a File on You”, “Bank Holiday”). The lyrics appear to address the feeling of unease brought about by people in distant cities already knowing everything about your life before you visit, which is probably easier to relate to if you are in fact Damon Albarn, but some of them – “All for a cold sore, something out of nothing” – could be lifted from discarded drafts for verses for “Song 2” (at least that’s what I’m going with until I get hold of a lyric sheet). If someone else was trying to write a Blur song, they’d probably write this, but it serves its purpose as a palette cleanser just fine.
“My Terracotta Heart”
Where “I Broadcast” is a little Blur by numbers, “My Terracotta Heart” is the kind of music one could only have dreamt they'd be making on their comeback record. One of the saddest songs in their canon, the guitar here has been described as “crying” by Coxon, while Albarn’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics directly address his turbulent friendship with his returning bandmate (“we were more like brothers, but that was years ago”). Damon has written songs for Graham before (Think Tank’s “Sweet Song” is a tender statement on their break up), but Graham’s never played on the tunes, and though this was reportedly pretty much completed musically before Albarn put any lyrics to it, the fit is glove-like. Dave Rowntree’s percussion is here is his best on the record as well. So, nice one Dave. A beer, for you.
“There Are Too Many Of Us”
With its military marching beat and staccato strings, “There Are Too Many Of Us” is perhaps Blur’s eighth album’s strangest turn. With lyrics addressing population overcrowding in Hong Kong and terrorism in Sydney, The Magic Whip’s second single has themes that fly all over the place, though the mood is one of coherent oppression. It’s an anxious and intense track, but as is the case across The Magic Whip, it’s extremely melodiously generous (the band have never sounded as luscious as they have when the second verse kicks in), with Graham again eschewing his trademark discordance and for the most part concentrating on sci-fi like synths. The best songs should leave you feeling different at the end of them, even if that feeling is more challenging than pleasant. “There Are Too Many Of Us” always makes me feel uneasy.
In a quite welcome development after the near tyranny of its predecessor, things take a lighter turn with “Ghost Ship”. Whereas on some of their more melodious Britpop-era numbers Coxon had a laudable habit of trying to direct the song in to oncoming traffic with a dissonant solo, here he plays to the songs tuneful strengths – in fact, it’s Alex James’ smoothly soulful bassline that shines through most brightly. It’s a tune with a slow burner of a chorus that almost has the feel of a lost Dexy’s Midnight Runners cut, or plastic soul Bowie circa Young Americans (an acknowledged influence throughout Albarn’s career). Like many of the songs here, it clocks in at around the five minute mark, but drifts by like a few minutes’ gentle breeze.
The Magic Whip’s centrepiece – or it would be, if it were in the middle of the record - “Pyongyang” certainly gives the best summation of the album’s themes and atmosphere. In a catalogue of thoughts on Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea, where Albarn spent time during the recording, our narrator talks of a place where “the trees are amplified, a never ending broadcast to which I do not aspire”, in an emotive delivery that warns of the dangers of legislating against individuality. Of course, “Kim Jong-Un is a wrong’un” is hardly news, and anyone who’s oblivious to that fact is probably the kind of person Albarn is lamenting in this very song. But it’s difficult to rue this as a missed opportunity for a harder hitting protest song when the blissfully playful choruses of Albarn and Coxon are intertwining toward the song’s end. Again, the topic is far from trivial, but things don’t feel leaden – “Pyongyang”’s nearly six minutes feel like less than half that thanks to the gorgeous melodies that carry the weight of the words without breaking a sweat. If there is one defining quality of The Magic Whip, it’s probably that. Layers, innit.
I know things need working titles, but for Christ’s sake, it does annoy me a little that the song The Magic Whip is most likely to be remembered for goes by the name of “Ong Ong”. Mind you, I felt the same about “Beetlebum”, and that turned out OK. Anyway, title aside, while a lot of these songs feel like the painstaking work of master craftsmen, “Ong Ong” (ugh) feels like it was written in minutes, or as if it’s always existed somewhere in the ether. Perhaps it has - if you can stop yourself breaking into Dusty Springfield’s “I Only Want To Be With You” during the chorus, you’re a stronger person than me – but it’s a pleasure all the same. The simplest and most brazenly populist song here by far, it’s one that revels in escaping the city rather than wallowing in its oddness, and on it Albarn comes across as warm, friendly, and in love with the world and the people in it – the same people he’s been so wary of the rest of the record, the contrary bastard. The return to the knees up feel of peak Blur will annoy some, but it’ll enrapture far more as soon as it starts getting performed in fields to beer users.
With things nicely set up to end on a wearily whimsical if not wholly positive note after “Ong Ong” opened the windows on this most agoraphobic of records, The Magic Whip once again retreats in on itself for a maudlin yet strangely pretty closing number. Similar in feel to perhaps their only true Britpop kindred spirits, the also recently reformed Super Furry Animals (check “Sarn Helen” from Mwng), it revolves around repeated use of Graham’s tremolo arm, bending chords in to unfamiliar shapes in a show of how Hong Kong had as much of an influence on his playing as it did on Albarn’s lyrics (which, here, are far more personal - “Cry my eyes, hold close to me”, he begs, albeit slightly nonsensically). It leaves a feeling of contented bewilderment at an album that’s as instantly loveable in places as it is wilfully guarded in others. As with their best records, you’ll have to put in some work – but Blur have met you more than halfway.
The Magic Whip is released on 27 April via Parlophone and is available for pre-order. Blur headline the Isle of Wight Festival on 13 June and play British Summer Time Hyde Park on 20 June.