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Blur
The Magic Whip Joe Clay , April 17th, 2015 16:39

In 2013, when the reunited Blur found themselves in Hong Kong with five days to kill midway through an Asian tour, rather than go sightseeing, they holed up in a studio and jammed together. After the ensuing year or so of radio silence from Blur HQ, it seemed that these now mythical "Hong Kong sessions" would never see the light of day, but in an act of humility he's not usually associated with, self-confessed control freak and Britpop polymath Damon Albarn gave over creative control of the project to his old mucker Graham Coxon. It has proved to be one of the best decisions he's ever made. While the main problem with Think Tank (the last Blur album, released in 2003) was Coxon's absence, The Magic Whip has got his paws all over it – and it's all the better for it. Some bands can survive losing a key member, but the dynamic of Blur, and what makes them special, is the musical chemistry between those four individuals. And while the narrative behind the The Magic Whip makes it feel like Coxon's baby, it's impossible for his bandmates not to make their mark.

Albarn, who initially thought the freeform sessions wouldn't amount to anything, loved what Coxon, along with producer Stephen Street, had done with them so much that he agreed to add his voice and make it a proper Blur album – the band's eighth – returning to Hong Kong to immerse himself in the vibes of the original sessions and write lyrics. For many Blur haters, an absence of bass player Alex James would make Blur a more likeable proposition – some believe him a colossal cheese-making helmet, forever damned by his association with Cameron, Clarkson and Oliver. But I say judge a man not on the company he keeps, but the quality of the basslines he lets rip, and James is on fire on The Magic Whip. Knocking out lithe, groovy basslines while nonchalantly smoking a fag is what he was born to do, and so long as he doesn't use his latest moment in the spotlight to extol the political virtues of his mate Dave, it is possible to block out the background noise and just enjoy him in his element. And it always seems like damning him with faint praise to brand drummer Dave Rowntree "steady", but in a band with a difficult history and such complex interpersonal relationships, Rowntree is Blur's beating heart. It also helps that he's a fabulous (and mystifyingly underrated) drummer.

As if to prove that this is a collective effort, opener 'Lonesome Street' is the history of Blur in one song. Putting it up top is an inspired move – as producer Street says it's "here's everything we can do in one song."  It has a choppy Coxon riff, a knees-up tempo, crazy toytown keyboards, James's rubber-band bass, lots of "oooh-ooohs", jaunty whistling, Albarn banging on about "the 5.14 to East Grinstead" and some vaguely psychedelic flourishes (Coxon's dazed Syd Barrett vocal contributions). It only takes a couple of listens to know that it's an Instant Blur Classic that would easily elbow out 'Charmless Man' to sit comfortably on any future Best of.

In complete contrast, the heavy, almost primal, 'Go Out' is driven by Coxon's powerful, distorted riffs. It's like something from their self-titled 1997 album, when Coxon was obsessed with Pavement and the US underground, with Albarn saucily croaking, "I get into my bed, I do it to myself" over Coxon's guttural guitar squawks. The edgy closing guitar solo was apparently inspired by the anxiety that the heaving Hong Kong brings out in Coxon. The raucous chorus of the snotty 'I Broadcast' evokes memories of lost single 'Popscene' and is the only other time Coxon really gets to let rip, but his myriad talents as a guitarist are on show in subtler tones throughout the record. 'Ong Ong', the album's uptempo penultimate track, is another that nods to Blur's chipper heyday, all catchy "la-la-las" and a loved-up vocal refrain of "I wanna be with you" – one you can immediately hear being belted out by a beered-up festival crowd.

The brooding 'There Are Too Many Of Us', with its martial drums, is a lament on the population explosion that is musically close in spirit to Think Tank, while the lyrical preoccupation echoes Albarn's recent solo album. In fact, one criticism is that there is a definite hangover from Everyday Robots. As mentioned before, the narrative is that Coxon is the driving force behind the album, but Albarn remains a strong presence, and his current musical outlook – reflective, melancholic, electronic pop – is apparent on the likes of 'New World Towers' and 'My Terracotta Heart'. The former is subdued, with Albarn's vocal cracking in places and Coxon plucking out a delicious acoustic guitar solo, while on the latter Albarn reflects on his often troubled relationship with Coxon ("I was running out of open road to you") over clanking percussion and what Coxon calls a "crying guitar", representative of the sadness their estrangement has caused him. The beautiful, abstract ballad 'Pyongyang' is based on Albarn's experiences visiting North Korea. "The pink light that bathed the great leaders is fading," he soothingly intones as Coxon twangs away.

However, Blur have always been a progressive band, and this isn't just them revisiting past glories or Albarn using his bandmates to augment his solo excursions. The seductive 'Ghost Ship' is probably their most sophisticated song yet. There are definite MOR vibes, with a moody sax line and Coxon's deft riffing as funky as you are likely to hear from a man whose general demeanour has always seemed so resolutely anti-funk. 'Thought I Was A Spaceman' is another ambitious stylistic shift, clocking in at over six minutes, with Albarn's echoing vocals musing on climate change (in this fantasy world "the desert had encroached upon the places where we lived" and there are sand dunes in Hyde Park) set to propulsive rhythms, a simple xylophone melody and Coxon's spaghetti western guitar flourishes. The bleepy, wistful 'Ice Cream Man' (dispenser of "the Magic Whip" of the title) is a Parklife-era Albarn character study but with a welcome scoop of otherness. Emotional closer 'Mirrorball' is a close relation to the magnificent 'This Is A Low', with a shimmering, tremolo-heavy, Richard Hawley-esque guitar line from Coxon. "Before you log out, hold close to me," Albarn warbles, as a swooning Eastern melody chimes out.

I was at the 2009 Hyde Park reunion concert, in the thick of it blubbering to 'Tender' and trying to work out if I was leaking tears because I was coming up on a pill I had bought from a Reni hat-wearing acid house casualty or just ecstatic they were back – hatchet buried, mates again. Back then I didn't care if they never wrote another note of music together again. It didn't seem important. Turns out it was. If this is to be their epitaph, it's a far more fitting and cohesive swansong than Think Tank. The dichotomy at the heart of Blur – the art school weirdos who became a massive pop band against the will of their guitarist – isn't present any more. They haven't got Dave Balfe of Food bullying them into writing hits, or Albarn's planet-sized ego dictating they strive for global supremacy. The tensions are gone and Coxon recently remarked that the band are now more accepting of each other than they were previously. He can pretend to be Pete Townshend while James indulges his inner-John Taylor without it coming to fisticuffs. Albarn's affected Cockernee persona is long gone – he's now a thoughtful, introspective soul, lyrically obsessed with technological dislocation and the alienation of life on our crowded planet, and is much better (if a little maudlin) company as a result. And Dave? Well, Dave is Dave. Steady, reliable, bloody excellent at drumming. While not quite the gang of four of old, they are all pulling in the same direction and, even for the most casual Blur fan, that is a glorious thing.

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