May 26, 2015 Blur – The Magic Whip (Album Review)
The assertion of many music journalists that the English band Blur were among the instigators of what became known as Britpop music is not an exaggeration. Yes, there were surely bands that had been concocting similar, if not the same, styles heavily influenced by 1980s New Wave and Indie music long before them, but, because of the stout and loud proclamations of the band’s leader, Damon Albarn, concerning the legitimacy of Britpop as a genre and a cultural phenomenon and his band’s association with it, Blur indeed became the well-regarded poster band of that generation’s brand of Britpop music. Despite the band’s attempt to dissociate themselves afterwards from the said genre—for fear of becoming irrelevant along with the genre’s perceived demise as orchestrated and fuelled by sensationalist journalists—Blur’s music has remained the epitome of how Britpop music typically sounds like. There is nothing shameful with that, in fact, it is something that Blur should be proud of. After all, to cement a certain genre in the consciousness of so many music enthusiasts and to nestle one’s band in the genre’s very heart is to feel at home, at least, in a musical sense. Whatever other styles that they might have tried to incorporate into their later works, Blur’s entire musicality remains distinctively and flavorfully Britpop.
The gradual transition of Blur’s music from the artsy, glossy sheen of the band’s early albums to the less angular, yet more abrasive later ones, and the “Synth-hop”-influenced final stroke is, in retrospect, no longer surprising. One simply needs to consider the departure of guitarist Graham Coxon in the final years of the band and Albarn’s excursions to other sonic realms like Hip-Hop, Dub, and African World Beat—as validated ultimately by Albarn’s forming of Gorillaz. Despite these changes, one could still paint a clear picture of Blur’s music—one that is best characterized by quirky lyricism, playful instrumentation, memorable melodies, danceable drumbeats, relatively simple song structures, and subtle strings and horn ornamentations that figured more prominently in their second to the fourth albums. Albums one, five, six, and seven were more simplistic in approach—less extra instruments. Also, do not forget Albarn’s distinctive chirpy and throaty vocal styling reminiscent of The Cure’s Robert Smith, Lloyd Cole, and The Fall’s Mark E. Smith.
Formed by Albarn (vocals/keyboards/guitars), Coxon (guitars/vocals), Alex James (bass), and Dave Rowntree (drums) in London, England, in 1988, right at the center of the era’s English Alternative music scene, Blur, in their original phase, released seven award-winning albums—from 1991’s Leisure to 2003’s Think Tank—each of which produced chart-topping singles that included “There’s No Other Way,” “For Tomorrow,” “Girls & Boys,” “Country House,” “Beetle Bum,” “Tender,” and “Out of Time.” These were just some of the songs that catapulted the band to international stardom until their long hiatus circa 2004.
Having since reunited in 2009 as a complete four-piece to play some retrospective shows, Blur has, finally, unleashed their new, eighth album on April 27, 2015, a good twelve years after the last! Entitled The Magic Whip, its sound, when taken as a whole, will remind the initiated listener how inventive and attractive Blur’s music has always been. Just the song titles alone can be enough to titillate the fancy of not only their old fans but also new initiates of the band. “Lonesome Street” sounds like a throwback from Leisure—the rhythm guitar reminds of “There’s No Other Way;” and those whistles and whirling synthesizer lines in the background make the song very catchy yet quirky. “New World Towers” is a slow ballad in the vein of classic Blur songs like “End of a Century” and “The Universal.” The music of “Thought I Was a Spaceman” that builds on the swelling effect of the guitar and the keyboards is very fitting—highly recommendable for an astronaut’s mixtape.
On the track “I Broadcast,” the gang seemed to have drawn melodic inspirations from Bad Manners; it borrows a bit of milk and sugar from the English Ska band’s 1980 song “Special Brew.” “My Terracotta Heart” is another lovely, well-titled ballad. “There Are Too Many of Us” has that anthemic feel because of the marching style of the drums and the staccato string flourishes. “Ghost Ship” is sweet and loungey with its jazzy rhythm section. “Pyongyang” has that sinister and gothic sound, owing to the single-note guitar ad lib in the verses and the tiny glassy keyboard melody reminiscent of Tones on Tail’s “Lions.” “Ong Ong” seems to pay tribute to the early music of David Bowie; after all, Bowie was one of Blur’s inevitable musical heroes. The album closes seamlessly with the cool and relaxed mood of “Mirrorball”—still apt for the dance floor, but only when the lights get dimmer and the pairs of bodies merge into one.
Whip all these imageries with the album’s supposed cultural undertones and the four members’ respective musical idiosyncrasies and listeners get the Blur magic. Solid from start to finish, it was well worth the wait for long-time followers. The Magic Whip is indeed Britpop updated; but at the same time, a seeming homage to the sound of classic Britpop. For Blur, it is certainly not yet the end of a century. CrypticRock gives The Magic Whip 4 out of 5 stars.Feature photo credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire