It’s been almost one year since Damon Albarn perceived today’s society as “everyday robots on [their] phones/looking like standing stones/out their on our own.” Albarn has been a keen observer on how new technology has alienated those around him, connecting the world online but isolating them in real life, as was the subject of his 2014 solo record Everyday Robots. Albarn has always mocked and mused on the world whether it was on his own, behind his cartoon rock band Gorillaz or with his original wrecking crew Blur.
Albarn’s current theme of social distance via touch screen has apparently rekindled the fire between the quirky English quartet with the evidence being the band’s first album in 12 years (or 16 in guitarist Graham Coxon’s case, as he left the band during the sessions for 1999’s 13). Then again, it’s very hard to find Blur on The Magic Whip because Damon Albarn’s second solo album is blocking them.
The Magic Whip sounds much more like a follow-up to Albarn’s Everyday Robots than a new Blur record. Much like Everyday Robots, The Magic Whip has a subdued energy with mostly electronic music backing the songs. Tracks like “New World Towers,” “Ice Cream Man,” and “My Terracotta Heart” are slow burning tracks with electronic drums and light acoustic guitar complimenting Albarn’s innocent falsetto. The only other notable component of Blur found on these tracks is guitarist Graham Coxon, whose signature strumming can be heard in the background behind Albarn’s vocals.
Aside from their lead singer, the rest of Blur also took influences from their surrounding environment. The music on The Magic Whip was recorded during a jam session in Hong Kong two years ago, so an Eastern sound is scattered around. “There Are Too Many Of Us” is propelled by a Chinese organ, turning into a dark ballad about people getting smaller as video screens get bigger. Closing track “Mirrorball” sounds like a spacey jam played in a moody bar in Hong Kong.
But before fans think all is lost, sounds of the one, true Blur pop out now and again. Album opener “Lonesome Street” features a great back-and-forth vocal between Coxon and Albarn as the band skips along to a bouncing beat a-la “For Tomorrow,” while lead single “Go Out” follows the late-Blur trend of having big volume and fuzzed-out guitars that still owe credit to Sonic Youth. “I Broadcast” is the most energetic track, with a mixture of synthesizer and guitar that wouldn’t have been out of place on Blur’s signature album Parklife. It’s like a cocktail of everything that’s ever influenced Blur; not so much an imitation, but a reminder of who they are.
Blur are keen observers of their surrounding areas, like the ultimate people-watchers of music. The Magic Whip is no exception, as the quartet still sound like the cool kids making fun of the squares at shopping plazas. “Lonesome Street” features the band hinting at an escape from mass produced shlock, while “New World Towers” showcases the claustrophobia of being overrun by neon lights and city skyscrapers (“green green the neon green/new world towers/carved out of gray white skies”). “There Are Too Many of Us” looks past the successes of the youth now stuck in suburbia and wonders if they’re teaching the right lessons (“we’ve posed these questions to our children/across the mountain stream/and live in tiny houses/of the same mistakes we’ve made”). It’s not all doom and gloom, as heard in “Ong Ong” where Albarn skips happily away from the world with a loved one. Blur have always been cheeky, but it’s nice to hear they can be charming on occasion.
The notion of Blur putting out a new record has seemed like a running joke for the last decade, almost as if the band was trolling their fans by even hinting at it. The more worrisome part was that people cared more about the prospect an album rather than a GOOD album. Thankfully, Blur is smart enough to know that they had to connect and combust to make new music again instead of just making an album just to make another album. The Magic Whip is a great album that only Blur could make; its atmosphere certainly has more in common with the band’s frontman than the band itself, but Blur knows how to work with what they have.
Damon Albarn will always be at Blur’s core and his feelings have always steered the band in every direction. But in a time when bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Guns N’ Roses and even Panic! At The Disco have turned into solo projects for their lone lead singer, Blur takes their ego out of the equation and focuses more on building off of each other. That’s what a real band is supposed to do, as was the case that took Blur from sweaty pubs in London to Lifetime Achievement at The Brit Awards. Normally this would be coming full circle, but there’s a feeling that Blur will always be around for the outsiders looking in, horrified at the future.
Final Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars