Blur – The Magic Whip (4 stars)

An intriguing return from Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree produces a couple of classics

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Blur – The Magic Whip

(Parlophone)

Brushing aside the Brit-centric formulism of their career heyday, what was truly great about Blur was also what sounded like the least considered.

We’re talking about the self-titled 1997 record and selected subsequent moments from 13 and Think Tank. Together, the quartet of Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree made an art not of aping The Kinks over and over, but of tossing out songs which sounded like they were recorded almost as an afterthought and imbuing them with something intrinsic that grew listen after listen.

And so this only semi-expected comeback album, thrown together in five days of snatched Hong Kong studio time in 2013, intrigues where it might have underwhelmed.

The first track, ‘Go Out’, set the bar only midway – it’s a dense bed of clanking guitar and muffled, squelchy bass with Albarn scatting about ‘going to the local’ (‘going to the lo-oh-oh-oh-oh-cal’, in his singular phrasing) over the top. Out of context, it allowed expectations to be placed on hold; within the album, it makes perfect sense. It’s one more shade in a 12-track sonic palette which bears that blend of engagement and disenchantment that is definitively Blur.

The record begins on a typically Coxon-esque guitar crunch, Albarn asking ‘whaddya got / mass-produced in somewhere hot?’ amidst the upbeat, Syd Barrett-echoing whimsy of ‘Lonesome Street’. Far more redolent of this treatise to disconnection with late Capitalism – a recurring Blur / Albarn theme, no matter how obtusely tackled – is the hazy Ballardian balladry of ‘New World Towers’, the parched minimalism of ‘Thought I Was a Spaceman’ and the martial, string-led declaration of overpopulation and frustrated mortality in ‘There Are Too Many of Us’. That last track is one of two stone cold Blur classics on here.

The Queen-like riff of ‘I Broadcast’ – the other classic – is as pristine as any great pop three-minuter this quartet have produced, while ‘Ghost Ship’ is positively tropical. But it’s rarely upbeat and there’s a certain Albarn-led voyeurism inherent in its absorption of the surroundings it was created within.

Yet once again that feeling persists: that The Magic Whip hasn’t been studied or pored-over, and that something alchemical and very natural has been allowed to work together once more.

The Magic Whip is released on Mon 27 Apr, on Parlophone.

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