Blur (photo by Linda Brownlee)

The Magic Whip
Warner Brothers/Parlophone 

The long wait for a new album from Blur has ended. Coming somewhat out of the blue—although the group has been touring and releasing one-off singles since 2009—The Magic Whip is Blur’s first studio album released since 2003’s Think Tank. But guitarist Graham Coxon was largely absent from that recording, so this new album, the band’s eighth, finds Blur recording as a unified force again with their first full-length album as a quartet in 16 years, since 1999’s 13.

The genesis of this new album is traced back to a brief pause in their 2013 tour, following the cancellation of a Tokyo music festival. Over a handful of days in a Hong Kong studio, the group—Coxon, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Damon Albarn, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree—hunkered down and recorded music, with the vague idea of an album. But after the tour, the band split in different directions and the new songs languished on a shelf; Albarn turned his focus on other projects, notably the recording and release of his solo album, 2014’s Everyday Robots.

Eventually Coxon, curious to comb through what he and his four bandmates had recorded in Hong Kong, offered to resurrect that material, finding what was usable—and what was not—with the help of long-time producer Stephen Street. Once their work on the instrumental bones of each song felt strong enough, Coxon handed them off to Albarn for his lyrical input. Feeling that he needed to reclaim the headspace, mood and emotion of those sessions to write the appropriate words, Albarn returned to Hong Kong for inspiration.

Despite its serendipitous roots, The Magic Whip is the deeply satisfying reunion of musicians who’ve had an opportunity to step back and take a breath. The grind of being one of music’s biggest bands had worn down the group’s psyche. Blur needed a respite from being Blur, recharging their batteries on the road. As a result, The Magic Whip possesses a looseness that comes from being on tour, and, on an accidental holiday in Hong Kong, freed from expectations too. The album is a relaxed amalgam of past experiences and accomplishments, as well as a summarization of the surroundings that inspired it. The fact that the songs were born in Hong Kong feeds the substance of the album.

Kicking off the proceedings is the playful, rocked-out greeting, “Lonesome Street.” The punchy and punkish “Go Out” is juxtaposed with the acoustically resonant “Ice Cream Man,” which features light electronic flourishes that recall some of Albarn’s work with Gorillaz or Everyday Robots. Similar qualities take center stage in the expansive “Thought I Was A Spaceman,” which shivers with melancholy amid a wash of keyboards and synthesizers. “My Terracotta Heart” finds inspiration from Albarn’s Everyday Robots. The glittering backdrop of Hong Kong serves the broad avenues, skyscrapers and side alleys of songs like “New World Towers,” “There Are Too Many Of Us,” and “Ong Ong”.

The Magic Whip is the work of a mature, revitalized band that realized the time and situation was right to create again. For the first time in a long time, they’ve delivered music that feels cohesive, connected and purely Blur.

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