In the '90s, Blur climbed to the upper echelons of British pop music, pioneering and perfecting a new genre and constantly exploring new ground. Perhaps more importantly, they wrote what you might know as the “Woohoo song” that was on FIFA '98. (They even paved the way for Oasis, but let's forgive them for that.) And sixteen years since their last album as a four piece band, and after a seven year hiatus, Blur shows that they still have the creativity that took them to the pinnacle of British rock all those years ago; The Magic Whip is a wonderful comeback.
The album features enough nostalgia to keep the old faithful happy. The opener, “Lonesome Street”, could have easily slotted into any of the band's Brit-pop albums. The jumping chords give way to an almost romantic refrain and as an added bonus Graham Coxon comes on co-vocals to pay homage to Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett years. “Ong Ong” joins “Lonesome Street” among indie pop songs, featuring a sing-along “la-la-la” backing vocal and a boyishly charming refrain. “Go Out”, on the other hand, is a throwback to the lo-fi, feedback-drenched sound of 1997's eponymous Blur. Coxon's solid, chopping riff is complemented by Alex James' deep bass lines. The lively “I Broadcast” rounds off the list of songs that are reminiscent of the Blur that we've come to know and – if you're not Noel Gallagher – love.
While the comforting sense of familiarity is all well and good for the seasoned Blur fan, it is when the album takes steps into new territory, where Damon Albarn's and Graham Coxon's diverging tastes find common ground that it really comes to life.
“Thought I Was a Spaceman” is perhaps the best of the tracks that Coxon calls “sci-fi folk”. The song builds upon layers of music as Damon Albarn sings about digging out his heart in some distant land. The bright xylophone notes interspersed within the outer space ambience create an eerie vibe to match the lyrics of alienation. “My Terracotta Heart” sings of loss and the fear of loss and carries an elegantly melancholic
“There are Too Many of Us” is another high point of the album. A forbidding military marching beat pounds throughout the song and the high-drama strings add weight to Albarn's words as he contemplates mortality and humanity. Showcasing the album's broad tastes, “Ghost Ship” takes a turn towards a sort of reggae-soul, where James' bass and Coxon's slick chords take centre stage.
“Pyongyang” is to The Magic Whip what “This is a Low” was to Parklife. The haunting track evokes images of a desolate state of affairs, and in the refrain Blur finds a little bit of hope in the gloom. The heavy reverbed guitar backed by an Oriental string arrangement of “Mirrorball” showcases the far eastern influence of recording in a Hong Kong studio and brings the album to a satisfying finish.
It takes a few playbacks for The Magic Whip to crack, but the patience is well worth it. While it's far from the pop classics of the Blur of old, The Magic Whip is a wonderful album in its own right.