The grounds for the songs on ‘The Magic Whip’ were created in five days while Blur were essentially stranded in Japan with nothing to do. Bare that in mind when listening to Blur’s first album in 13 years – that this album hasn’t been 13 years in the making but more like something that came as a quick revelation. In that time away as a band the two main creative forces behind Blur, Graham Coxon (who wasn’t a part of Blur’s last album ‘Think Tank’) and Damon Albarn have both been constantly creating and adjusting to the fact that they’re now middle-aged men who’re nowhere near as pretty as they once were.
Damon Albarn’s most recent solo album consisted of him singing in an extremely dreary manner pretty much the entire way through the album. He pondered upon what the world was coming to with everybody turning into ‘Every day robots on our phones’ and the fact that we’re becoming gradually more disenfranchised as a society as times goes on. In contrast, over the course of Coxon’s solo career he’s kept a lot of the spirit of Blur alive in his material with a series of albums that each proved how big a part he played in Blur’s material.
It’s a wonderful miracle then, that on a large part of ‘The Magic Whip’ Blur actually manage to marry the two elements of these guys’ solo careers together with the chemistry they’ve always had. Especially considering that after the five days that Blur recorded these songs together, the album was pretty much made in separate places at separate times, going back and forth between Coxon and Albarn. For example the production on this album very much sounds like Graham Coxon had a lot to do with it. The opening notes of the first track ‘Lonesome Street’ sound so stereotypically like Blur with a guitar tone that’s previously been heard on songs like ‘There’s No Other Way’. There’s also an element of experimentation on this album that never feels over indulgent like how a lot of people feel about Damon Albarn’s solo projects (Note: Myself not included in this). Every synth note or shambolic guitar solo on ‘The Magic Whip’ is made to pop even when everything around it is surrounded by a dark shadow.
This shadow being Damon Albarn himself, who sounds like he’s trying to capture some of the gloom from ‘Everyday Robots’ on here. For the lyrics, Albarn went back to where they originally recorded the songs in Japan and wrote about the feelings the place brought up in him. As a result, Albarn’s lyrics feel very descriptive and are laid out clearly. On the track ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ he opens with the line ‘There are too many of us/ it’s plain to see/ We all believe in praying/ for our immortality’, the lyrics are simple and clearly detail his thought process and the questions he ponders upon when walking through Japan, right down to the fact that he feels homesick like on the track ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’. He constantly makes reference to the places he would pass while travelling through Japan with lyrics like ‘I want to be with you/On a slow boat to Lantao’ on the track ‘Ong Ong’ and references to a Buddhist monastery on ‘Ghost Ship’.
Albarn’s knack for creating satirical and witty lyrics are pretty much gone on this album much like on his solo album. They’re traded for lines that are interesting and often compelling from a voyeuristic perspective, yet really lack that urgency of Blur’s early material that really made them stand out. Damon Albarn is occasionally guilty of sounding slightly one-dimensional at times when the lyrics because ever-so-slightly too obvious. This is also reflected in the melodic side as well when the gloom becomes too gloomy and instead sounds bland like on the track ‘Go Out’ which has a vocal melody that grows tedious towards the end of the song.
Even if the vocal melodies sometimes sound slightly dull at times, they never feel out-of-place. The band do a great job of actually stitching together this album and even though it was recorded in multiple sessions, it always sounds like it was all done together all at once. There’s still an undeniable chemistry between the members of Blur after all this time. The instrumentation itself sounds like they were never apart for the vast majority of this album. So many of the tracks on here sport that acoustic backdrop that we’re familiar with in their music that acts more as a way of keep rhythm rather than a chord progression like on the most typically Britpop-era-Blur sounding song on the album ‘Lonesome Street’. Most of the other songs are some of the most airy the band have ever conceived and sound well-fitting to the environment they were born in, yet it’s the subtle things in every song that sound like taking a trip down memory lane such as the little guitar scales played by Coxon on ‘My Terracotta Heart’.
Blur have found themselves in a position that not many would have predicted in the 90s. They’ve found themselves with one of the most critically acclaimed back-catalogues from the Britpop era, showing that they have so much more longevity than their old contemporaries such as any of the Oasis members. They’ve adapted and managed to make an album that captures the fact that the band was out of their comfort zone both sonically and recording wise when making this, yet it sounds original and wholly true to themselves. Blur may not be at their peak when making this style of music, but they’ve proven that after all this time that there’s still an immense chemistry in them.
Best Tracks: Lonesome street, Ghost Ship, My Terracotta Heart, Ice Cream Man