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The Strange Pseudo-Comeback of a Middle-Aged Blur and Their 'Magic Whip'

It took Blur 12 years, rehab, solo projects, and getting trapped in Hong Kong to make the follow up to 'Think Tank.' Was it worth the wait?

May 1 2015, 3:30pm

There was no reason to expect we'd ever hear another Blur album. Sure, the London-based band reunited in 2009 for a host of incredible (wallet-swelling) reunion shows, but pinning down Damon Albarn—now one of modern music’s most inventive polymaths—solo artist/guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist-turned-cheesemaker Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree, a lawyer with political ambitions, to record new material 12 years after the release of Think Tank? Even the most reckless of betting men would find it hard to part with a penny on those slim odds.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, Blur were 90s Britpop pinups, who, along with Pulp, offered an arty, quirky counterpoint to Oasis' boozy, swagger-rock. They achieved huge success in the UK thanks to their shrewdly observed vignettes of English life—from the jangle-pop of 1993’s “For Tomorrow,” to the bassy bounce of Brits abroad anthem, “Girls and Boys.” Where Oasis delivered everyman anthems ideal for bar brawls and arena sing-alongs, Blur could do chart-topping pop, but also cerebral songs which offered depth and dimension wrapped in memorable melodies and witty repartee; they understood vulnerability (“Badhead”), and poignancy too (“He Thought of Cars”). Then came Blur’s self-titled 1997 album, a direct reaction to their mainstream success, inspired in part by the lo-fi sonics of Pavement. The abrasive pop genius of “Song 2” came out of this period, a smash that helped them make waves in America, a country they’d long been skeptical of in song, while secretly remaining enamored by its largesse (at least towards those who are celebrated).

They might have been at the peak of their career—certainly internationally—but by the time 1999 rolled round the cracks between them were widening to unbridgeable gulfs. Solo projects started up, Albarn was dabbling in heroin and dealing with a tumultuous breakup with longtime girlfriend, Elastica frontwoman Justine Frischmann—all of which is documented in their emotionally harrowing sixth album 13. Coxon, whose unpredictable guitar lines are key to Blur’s appeal, was disenchanted with the machinations of pop stardom and the music industry, drowning his discontent in a bottle, a habit that drove him to rehab in 2001. The rift widened. Midway through recording what would evolve into 2003’s Think Tank, Coxon was out. Guitars were swapped for a more electronic-based sound and the record became a strange epilogue—a swan song that sounded more like an Albarn solo opus than a Blur production.

It’s a tale as old as rock ‘n’ roll: success followed by excess and addiction and the eventual severing of a complicated working partnership that had served as the engine of the band to begin with. While it might pain Blur fans to admit it, by this time Albarn had his sights set on projects more ambitious than the parameters of his band. He’s spent the last decade doing a whole lot of exploring, finding a new kind of relevance and success with Gorillaz, one of the projects that laid the groundwork for the genre free-for-all we now enjoy. It was a far cry from the early days, which was rooted in an almost aggressive Britishness, particularly in the wake of grunge. Nobody would have expected Albarn to gleefully start mashing up voices and sounds and personas as he did with Gorillaz, or, for that matter, when creating 2002’s Mali Music. Or 2013’s Maison Des Juenes. Or scoring Chinese opera, Monkey: Journey to the West. And then there was The Good, the Bad, & the Queen (with members of The Verve and The Clash and Danger Mouse on production). Not to mention Rocket Juice & the Moon with RHCP’s Flea.

Albarn’s second act was a fascinating left turn exposing him as an insatiable, versatile artist, but that didn’t stop the die-hards pining for a reunion. When the trio reconciled with Coxon in the late 00s, Blur’s return—a series of intimate shows, festival dates, and 50,000-fan strong homecoming blowout in London’s Hyde Park—was rapturously received. Blur felt like the rare reunion act that could have a point beyond retreading the hits, but what followed in the six-year interim was a bunch of hints and false starts that lead us to suspect otherwise. There was the revealing 2010 documentary No Distance Left to Run, alongside gorgeous new track “Under the Westway,” but that was it… until this week with the release of their eighth album, The Magic Whip.

It’s a happenstance record that came together when a 2013 show in Tokyo was canceled and the band found themselves stranded in Hong Kong with a five-day gap in their calendar and a rehearsal space to jam in. Essentially, Blur had to be marooned together in order to write new material, but it doesn’t sound like an album made under duress. The record shares the globe-trotting aesthetic of Albarn's various other forays, initially striking me as a companion to last year's Everyday Robots, Albarn's first fully-fledged solo album. Both collections share an air of quiet contemplation with plenty of meditative slow-burners, but The Magic Whip is a twistier, more diverse affair.

When the album was announced, Albarn compared it to Berlin-era Bowie. You can hear that influence in the metallic groove of “Go Out,” or in the warped sheen of “Thought I Was A Spaceman” and “There Are Too Many of Us.” But the comparison to Berlin-era Bowie truly lies in the fact that The Magic Whip is Blur's Hong Kong-era version of themselves: Here is another quintessential British artist finding and expressing a new facet of their identity in an entirely foreign environment.

I interviewed Albarn at SXSW last year, a brief 20-minute affair during which we spoke about time we’d both spent in China. The Magic Whip sounds a lot like my memories of that trip without resorting to any obvious musical markers. The vibe is woozy and meandering, crammed and overflowing with ideas and imagery that crash up against each other. Even as the songs reveal sharper structures after repeat plays, the album is coated in a haze you have to work your way into. It reminded me of the walks I took in Shanghai in August and September 2011, when the overbearing heat and humidity makes it feel as if you’re wading through a thick fog. Blur bottles this up here in the way the guitars drift and hang in the swampy air as “Thought I Was A Spaceman” begins, or how the synth sounds buzz and whine as the song picks up. Likewise, the frayed ballads “Pyongyang” and “Mirrorball” feel off-kilter, like they've been left out to burn and age in the polluted Chinese sun (despite the former's callout to another country entirely). You can picture these four men sweating in a cramped Hong Kong studio, letting a decade of other experiences and musical endeavors congeal in the impenetrable Chinese air, soaking up the spirit of that place.

For all its hooks, it’s this quality which makes The Magic Whip initially somewhat impenetrable. It takes time—especially if you're a longtime Blur fan—to parse what sort of comeback album this even is. It's not a return that loudly announces itself. Instead, it's dominated by the kind of muted tones that can make an album require a few listens before it starts to unravel. Turns out “Ong Ong” is the sort of unabashed love song pop that will stick in your head for seven days straight and “Ghost Ship” is exactly what I'd hoped for when I thought of traces of the Gorillaz eking into Blur's world. “My Terracotta Heart” has that Everyday Robots vibe, but it’s more fully realized for having Albarn's old crew flesh it out. There are hints of the past here too—in the could've-been-born-anywhere cuts “Lonesome Street” and “I Broadcast,” both of which harken back to peak-Britpop Blur, but largely The Magic Whip doesn't sound quite like anything they've done. It doesn’t attempt to retread hallowed ground, but rather, it's full of diversions and suggested new paths.

While Blur first made their name on the kaleidoscopic imagery of 90s England in their Britpop trilogy, The Magic Whip expands that vision further, to Asia, gazing back at Britain from across the world. But like Everyday Robots and large portions of the Gorillaz discography, Albarn's wonder is mixed with feelings of dislocation in the 21st century. For the handful of endorphin bursts like “Ong Ong” and “I Broadcast,” there's sense of cool melancholy threading through songs like “New World Towers” (“Twenty four hours / I glide through the glass arcade to Hollywood / The cycle path it leaves me dreaming of love / Love so far away”). Elsewhere, over anxious strings and a marching snare he sings: “There are too many of us / In tiny houses here and there / All looking through the windows / On everything we share.” His vocals lightly reverbed, Albarn sounds as if he’s delivering his lines from far away gazing down from on high.

While Hong Kong gives The Magic Whip its unique quality in the Blur canon, the travel and physical displacement also accentuates Albarn's recent musings on the distance and isolation that can develop in the digital era. Maybe you could blame it on this being Blur's delayed middle-age transmission, but part of the wandering on The Magic Whip is rooted in Albarn grappling with what elements of ourselves we lose in the torrent of stimuli we see, hear, and consume on a daily basis now. Belying the spontaneity of its inception or the band's history of titanic catharses like “The Universal” and “Tender,” the tone of The Magic Whip borders on world-weary.

Despite, or maybe, because of all this, there's a vitality here—dressed up with that woozy Hong Kong murk. The album's loose strands leave the listener curious as to where they’ll go next. Maybe The Magic Whip will end up as a second epilogue, albeit a slightly happier, tidier farewell than Think Tank before it. Perhaps Blur will tour a bit more and then, again, go their separate ways. After all, the band continue to remind us how this record nearly never was, with Coxon cracking that his preference was to spend five days in the luxurious HK hotel bathtub, rather than toil away in a “scuzzy studio” to create the songs that make up The Magic Whip. I hope it doesn't play out that way. The Magic Whip might be a paradoxical return—a quieter, more intimate record than the sweeping generational statements of the Blur we once knew, made by four men seemingly nonchalant about the idea of new Blur music whatsoever. But it's also proof that they can still make music that’s surprising and special, music we didn't expect from them—and this alone means there are still so many reasons for them to exist.

The Magic Whip is out now on Parlophone.

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