Album Review: Blur - 'The Magic Whip'

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The reunion of the seminal 'britpop' band Blur was something that didn't seem possible at multiple points in the last decade.

After singer Damon Albarn's side project Gorillaz took off in 2001, his day job seemed less and less of a going concern.

After all, Gorillaz' hip hop/dub reggae/space-rock experiments perfectly suited a paranoid, post-911 mentality, making the classicist english pop of Blur seem quaint in comparison.

The original split of guitarist Graham Coxon from the band was something that had been brewing for years. After Blur's mid 90's one-two punch of Parklife and The Great Escape, there was a sense that the boys couldn't possibly take their cheeky british character studies anywhere further.

Coxon began pushing Blur into an interesting territory: American 90's indie rock like Pavement, Sonic Youth and Guided By Voices.

Coxon's singular guitar sound began to be more concerned with summoning noise instead of the Dave Davies-esque leads of his recent past.

Coxon continued to follow his muse with a string of lo-fi solo albums around the time when Albarn began constructing his animated side project Gorillaz.

So when Coxon was asked to leave the sessions for 2003's would-be Blur swan-song Think Tank, it came as no big surprise.

That album felt like a Gorillaz album with the hip hop quotient deleted, and while it contained many gorgeous Albarn compositions it was a far cry from the band we grew to love.

In the interim, Albarn has remained a tireless innovator, releasing four Gorillaz albums, a new band celebrating English folk (The Good, The Band & The Queen), a new band celebrating his fondness for African funk (Rocketjuice & The Moon) and a long overdue solo album last year called Everyday Robots.

Add to that list multiple musicals and there was really no time for Damon to look back at the band that got him into the party.

Finally in 2007 the four lads met up again for lunch and decided to reunite for some shows. Huge gigs followed in 2009 at London's Hyde Park, Glastonbury and at Oxygen '09, cementing the fact that this may very well be the greatest English band of the past 30 years.

Damon's lovable charisma gelled so well with Graham's outsider guitar non-hero mentality that the gigs seemed very natural.

However, new music would sit on the back burner until April 2015 where we indeed have a brand new studio album The Magic Whip (out now on Warner Brothers/Parlophone). Recorded in a quick blast of sessions in Hong Kong after a festival gig was cancelled, the recordings then sat on the back burner for over a year only half-finished.

Albarn was unsure if they would ever see the light of the day.

In an interesting turn of events, while Albarn was touring off his solo album, he gave the demos to Coxon and producer Stephen Street to see if they could somehow piece together an album.

Albarn was so pleased with how they turned out he actually returned to Hong Kong to inspire a new set of lyrics for the album.

The finished product is something entirely singular for the Blur cannon. It doesn't sound pieced together at all.

While it doesn't feature a four-guys-in-a-room feel, it also doesn't come across as a contrived, Frankenstein monster either.

The guys reach back to their britpop glory days for a few tracks like opener "Lonesome Street," and second single "There Are Too Many Of Us." Their hazy, druggy late 90's sound is revisited on "Go Out," "I Broadcast," and "Thought I Was A Spaceman." The multi-culti vibes of Albarn side-projects Gorillaz and Mali Music are represented on the gorgeous "New World Towers" "My Terracotta Heart," and "Ice Cream Man."

Is it just a Damon Albarn solo album with some Graham Coxon guitar squiggles thrown on top? The answer is a resounding "No." Alex James, always Blur's secret weapon, brings his brawny bass chops to "Lonesome Street," and "Ghost Ship," a track that shows Albarn has actually learned a lot about true funk in his time away from the band. "Ghost Ship" rides along a summery Dave Rowntree back beat, somehow evoking both The Style Council and mid 90's east-coast hip hop like Gang Starr.

Albarn has really soaked up the wide world of contemporary music like a sponge; no other 90's rock star has come remotely close to mastering the range of styles he presents on The Magic Whip.

While a lot of the themes Albarn presents deal with isolation and loneliness, this isn't a Lost In Translation kind of bummer.

He makes sure to add levity to the proceedings by making sure that the songs still rock out when they need to.

There are also enough sonic details to reward repeat listenings, where the consumer always finds new noises and quirks in the mix.

In the age of "reunions" comprising of one of the original members (a la The Smashing Pumpkins), or two of the original members (a la The Replacements) it is nice to see the four founding members of a rock and roll institution coming together for an album that stands up nearly as well as the band's classics.

The Magic Whip by Blur receives 5 Empty Lighthouses out of 5. A true contender for Album of The Year.

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