Fate has a funny way in dealing out its cards. In the case of Blur, an imposed five day stopover in Hong Kong, due to a cancelled festival performance at Tokyo Rocks 2013, resulted in the collective decamping to a local studio to muck about with sketches of new material they had rattling around. Then Blur got back on the road, and nothing. The fruits of the band’s labours were left, suspended in the digital ether. Until guitarist Graham Coxon had the nagging urge to revisit Blur’s Hong Kong sessions with producer Stephen Street, to see what could be gleaned from the shapeless thirty minute jams. Soon after, Coxon and Street were amalgamating these meandering soundscapes into tangible song formations – the husk of an album was beginning to manifest. As the record was spawned in Hong Kong, Damon Albarn journeyed back to the island to gain further inspiration for what lyrics would fit the aural patchwork his compadre was stitching together. These unorthodox methods helped concoct Blur’s 8th album ‘The Magic Whip’, their first in 12 years and their first as a four piece since 1999’s ‘13’.
‘The Magic Whip’s hodgepodge inception makes for a record of varied themes and textures, where ideas splinter and reform, where otherworldly noises nestle up to fragile wordplay; it’s an album that beats with a human pulse. Sonically, the cheeky-chappies from back in the Britpop days make the occasional cameo, ‘Lonesome Street’ and ‘Ong Ong’ hark back to when Blur where the likely lads with a mischievous glint in their eye and a cocky bounce in their step. However, ‘The Magic Whip’ has more of a kinship with ‘Think Tank’, the band’s last effort before going on hiatus, in that it’s a piece of work forged on abstract electronics, unconventional guitar patterns and an expansive sound that is equal parts eclectic as it is pop.
Nods to the album’s place of birth crop up regularly, ‘New World Towers’ namechecks the island’s famous landmark while Albarn observes Hong Kong’s vast skyline, noting planes and neon flourishes that bleed into the city’s vistas. “Love, love so far away” drawls Albarn, as if to recognise the distance he is from home and while the former British colony is a substantial plane journey from old Blighty, there’s an Englishness about ‘The Magic Whip’ that cannot be ignored. Be it in the song’s unpredictable structures, akin to a quirky antique shop full to the brim with retro-futuristic items and in ‘The Magic Whip’s lyrics. ‘I Thought I Was A Spaceman’ is a desolate ode constructed in a vortex where our protagonist’s words are accompanied by a minimal hum of beats and tuneful groans. It’s here where the foursome seem to be searching for something “I thought I found my blackbox” echoes sentiment towards self-exploration. During the tracks eventual, epic finale those inward glances to the self, position the listener at the band’s spiritual home – Hype Park “I thought I was a spaceman/digging out my heart/in some distant sand dune/in Hyde Park”. The stalwart British tradition of a Mr Whippy populates the burbling digital layers on ‘Ice Cream Man’, a moment that could easily be mistaken for Albarn’s other project, Gorillaz. Other than cups of tea or fish and chips, is there anything more English than a 99 with a Flake? Albeit sonically ‘Ice Cream Man’ bubbles with a dark melancholy, insinuating a sinister force lays behind the simple coos about a tasty summer day treat. Coxon’s virtuoso guitar playing is showcased on the ragged ‘I Broadcast’, a song that tips a hat to Blur’s days of rattling through ‘Girls and Boys’ but with a grown up joie de vivre.
Lyrically ‘The Magic Whip’ can be interpreted on a personal scale or something that occupies a more universal territory; Albarn and Coxon’s relationship is laid bare on ‘My Terracotta Heart’ – dulcet angelic pipes tremble over boom-clap beats with the Blur man referencing “when we were more like brothers/that was years ago” gesturing to the bond he has with his fellow bandmates. “Is something broke inside me?/because at the moment I’m lost and feeling that I don’t know/if I’m losing you again” is Albarn at his most confessional, exposing his fear of repeating the errors of the past and the anxiety he has of severing the deep affinity he and Coxon have rebuilt. Universal themes of claustrophobia and paranoia make up the military drummed ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ – this is where Albarn oversees the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong and people “living in tiny houses” but his observations swell further and to something more alarming when noting “terror on a loop elsewhere” an all too common scene nowadays.
Whether ‘The Magic Whip’ is a fully fledged return to recorded life for Blur is yet to be seen but the fact they’ve regrouped to produce something this accomplished, that is both forward thinking and intimate, should be greeted with open arms. If this is to be the final Blur album – it’s a fitting full stop.
Words and thoughts of Adam Williams