“I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘G’”.
“Glove compartment?” “No”.
“Gearbox?” “You can’t actually see the gearbox from in here”.
Before too long, everyone loses interest in the in-car game and all are swept away by the glorious eye-engrossing scenery. Luscious verdurous fields, sloping hills, commanding mountains. As The Magic Whip commences, it is near-impossible to listen to it without playing a similar game – ‘Spot The Blur Era’ each track most resembles. Oh, the guitars on ‘Lonesome Street’ are straight off Parklife; Wow, the loose jammy groove of ‘Go Out’ is like ‘Music is my Radar’; Doesn’t ‘New World Towers’ sound like Albarn side-project The Good, the Bad and the Queen? But as the album unfolds, and the unpredictable detours reveal much more than simply scrambled re-writes of beloved songs from the past, The Magic Whip creates its own musical forests and valleys and sunsets.
It doesn’t take an IQ of 187 to realise that the motivation for many bands that have reformed in recent years has been money, flagging solo careers or to reclaim the success not quite achieved while your group actually existed. But Blur are fairly unique in not having any of those rationales behind getting back together. The album itself had a fairly accidental birth – recorded in Hong Kong, for the most part, in five days they unexpectedly had off and then stitched together to make some sort of unified sense in London by Graham Coxon and, long-time Blur producer pal, Stephen Street. Despite the initial fun of the ‘spot the era’ game, once you reach ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’, it is clear this is a band who are not cemented to the past, simply trying to recreate old glories. With its strident marching beat and alarming fanfare-esque synths, ‘There Are…’ wouldn’t fit in any specific place in their back catalogue yet at the same time it’s unmistakably Blur-like. This is the sound of Blur moving forwards, possibly ‘praying for their immortality’ but, more than likely, just trying to make sense of how a group of four people who have been apart for so long fit back together as a collective whole.
Indeed, ‘My Terracotta Heart’ tackles the in-band dynamics head-on, detailing Albarn and Coxon’s troubled relationship, “Seemed like a breath of fresh air back in the summertime/When we were more like brothers, that was years ago”. And like much of The Magic Whip, it reflects the see-saw-style balance of influence between the two – Damon’s tender melancholia gently tussling with Coxon’s lumbering, tumbling guitar patterns. It is with ballads such as ‘My Terracotta Heart’, the eerie synth-washed ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ and the bleak ‘Pyongyang’ that The Magic Whip truly excels. Some of the faster moments here such as ‘I Broadcast’ succumb to the same problem that Think Tank’s ‘Crazy Beat’ suffered from – trying a little too hard to rock out, to possess the same exuberance which 90’s Blur tracks did without using a bead of sweat. That type of song works best when it sounds effortless, essential and without any contrivance, rather than feeling like the band thought they needed something punkier which would fit in their setlist.
Although The Magic Whip is perhaps a little less cohesive than some of their previous records, it is a much more focused, more satisfactory album than Think Tank. It may not be their finest work but sits along their canon with a sense of assuredness, unbending to any record company or the general public. If this is the last we hear of Blur, it is a strong, dignified final bow.
I spy with my little eye something ending with “relieved”.