First Spin... Blur's The Magic Whip
The last few years have been tough going for Blur fans, who could have been forgiven for wondering if a new album would ever see the light of day, but next week (April 27th) will finally see the release of the band's eighth studio album, The Magic Whip, their first LP since 2003's Think Tank and their first to include all four members, including guitarist Graham Coxon, since their 1999 album 13.
When Coxon left the band shortly after recording sessions for Think Tank had begun it seemed pretty final. The guitarist has been enjoying a successful solo career since his departure, releasing eight albums under his own name. Meanwhile, frontman Damon Albarn has been keeping himself busy with a variety of projects - including bands like Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Rocket Juice & The Moon - as well as working on a full-scale opera and releasing a solo album of his own. Elsewhere, drummer Dave Rowntree has been busying himself qualifying as solicitor and hosting his own show on XFM, while bassist Alex James has been making cheese and hanging out with the Chipping Norton set...
All of the above meant that a reunion had seemed pretty unlikely for most of the last decade, but things looked like they were starting to happen in 2012 when William Orbit, the man behind the recording desk for 13, revealed he was working with the band on a new album. Then, suddenly, he wasn't. Apparently enraged by Orbit's lack of discretion, Albarn reportedly called a halt to the sessions and, up until a few weeks ago, it had all gone very quiet on the Blur front.
However, earlier this year they announced that they had indeed recorded a new album, this time reverting back to working with Stephen Street, their producer of choice for their first five albums. Recorded in Hong Kong over just two weeks, The Magic Whip features 12 brand new tracks from the former kings of Britpop. So, with more than a little excitement, we gave the new LP a spin and jotted down our first impressions...
The opening track serves as an immediate reminder of just how important Graham Coxon's guitar work is to Blur's sound. Adding his own stuttering, gnarly playing style to the song's chords, this sounds like something from the band's self-titled album from 1997. Albarn meanwhile sounds a little melancholy, singing about catching the “5:14 to East Grinstead” and sounding for all the world like a weary commuter. It's relatively stripped back and a little rough around the edges, but it has that unique Blur feel that was lacking from Think Tank. This is a promising start.
'New World Towers'
This one's a bit of a downtempo number, a piano-led ballad featuring some sparse, barely-there percussion and Albarn returning to the man-adrift-from-the-world lyrical content that populates much of last year's solo effort, Everyday Robots. Again, it's Coxon's contributions that add texture to proceedings and drag the track into Blur land. Bit of a grower, this one...
The first of the new songs to emerge online - complete with a baffling video featuring an Asian woman demonstrating how to make ice cream - finds the band channelling XTC and sees Albarn spitting out stream-of-consciousness lyrics about loneliness and 'going to the local' by himself. The song itself though is a pretty upbeat affair, overlaid with lashings of Coxon's fuzzy guitars.
'Ice Cream Man'
Ushered in by some wonky synth noises and more sparse percussion, 'Ice Cream Man' is a relatively downbeat track on what is shaping up to be a fairly lo-fi album. This time Damon is singing what appears on the surface to be a pretty innocent lyric about the neighbourhood ice cream dispensary, but as with many of Albarn's songs there is a slightly sinister undercurrent to the whole thing. Graham's chops on an acoustic guitar glue the track together nicely, but this track also features Alex James' best bassline work so far...
'Thought I Was a Spaceman'
Some lightly bubbling electronic drums and Graham's spacey, reverb-drenched guitars kick off the fifth track on The Magic Whip, which wouldn't have been amiss among the songs found on 13. We're a third of the way through before Dave's drums finally arrive and the song begins to swell to something much bigger. It'll take a couple of listens, but we think this could well end up being one of your favourite tracks on the new record.
Debuted last week on Jools Holland's weekly live music slot Later..., this is easily the rawest and punkiest track on the album so far, with Graham's guitars really beginning to take the lead. We had wondered whether the return of Stephen Street in the role of producer would mean more of the layered orchestration found on albums like Parklife and The Great Escape, but there's no evidence of it here. It's a short, sharp shock of a track that's rough and ready from start to finish and it's one of our favourites from the new LP.
'My Terracotta Heart'
We're over the halfway mark now and 'My Terracotta Heart' wastes no time, jumping in with its drums and handclaps rhythm and some beautiful work from Albarn and Coxon on guitars and keys. Some stuttering strings and tender, swelling backing vocals layer this shifting track until it's gentle, fading conclusion. It's one of the more thoughtful tracks on The Magic Whip and it's a bit of a slow burner, but it's also achingly pretty.
'There are Too Many of Us'
Another of the tracks already premiered online in recent weeks, the staccato strings and Dave's military march drums underpin this song, featuring Albarn at his most apocalyptic and singing about overpopulation. The singer recently commented on the influence recording in Hong Kong has had on the new record, and listening to this it's easy to see what he means. There's something a bit claustrophobic about the first minute of the track, but then in come the drums and bass and the song really begins to build to an expansive wall of sound. One of the album's best moments, this...
There are echoes of The Specials and War's 'Low Rider' to the first few seconds of this track, but it's a brief moment that's washed away by Coxon's swooning, delicate guitar work – some of his best on the new new record. There's a languid, sun-drenched vibe to this track, particularly in the chorus, which is slightly at odds with the rest of the album, but it's a welcome shift in tone and sounds far less melancholy than some of the other tracks on The Magic Whip.
Of all the tracks on the new record it was this one, named after the capital of the famously insular North Korean republic, that left us unsure of what to expect. First of all it's surprisingly mellow and, musically speaking, it's one of the more lush arrangements on what is a pretty austere record overall, but the lyrics aren't quite the political rant you might expect. Instead there's a sympathetic, almost romantic nostalgia to this ditty about fading images of greatness. It doesn't have the instant impact of some the other songs here, but this will probably wind up being another favourite.
This sounds much more like 'old Blur' – i.e. the Parklife / Great Escape era – than anything else on the album and it's probably one of the most optimistic sounding tracks on a record that has a bit of a detached feel throughout. Its "La La La” hooks and Coxon's distinctive harmonies make this instantly recognisable as Blur, but beyond that we have to say it's one of the more forgettable tunes on the LP.
Bringing the curtain down on The Magic Whip is 'Mirror Ball', another downtempo track featuring some tremolo-drenched guitars and dreamy backing vocals, along with some gentle percussion that give the song an arid, desert vibe. It's yet another reminder of how much better Blur are when Graham Coxon is involved, leaving us hoping that, at some point in the future, there will be more where this came from.