The Beard – EP 116 – Blur by Beard Radio on Mixcloud

Blur - The Magic Whip

Blur – The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

Blur is back. Maybe. The only thing anyone knows is that the album, The Magic Whip is out and will likely be supported with one of their patented world tours. Despite not having released an album in more than a decade, Blur played a handful of UK dates in 2009 and added another handful plus a few European dates in 2012. They went on a world tour of untypical concert sites in 2013, hitting the big cities in South America, but also Jakarta, Istanbul, Mexico City as well as playing in out of the way spots in France and Poland in between two dates in Sapulpa and Edmond, Oklahoma, their only two U.S. summer shows, adding a Sacramento show in the fall. Blur have always been successfully iconoclastic, celebrating change and evolving at the right time. Take for example the success of their eponymous 1997 album, when they had had Cool Brittanica by the bollocks, they thumb their nose at the music establishment’s expectations and produce an album (13) of a darker, less-poppy songs that focus more on experimental elements of electronica while still being accessible and well-received both critically and commercially. Personal issues and evolving ideas of what Blur was brought about Coxon’s extended sabbatical, eventually the album Think Tank and the beginning of Albarn’s Gorillaz project.

With the waning of that glammy guitar-driven Britpop sound around 1997, the boys from Blur began to get that 7-year itch and began individually exploring the world for musical inspiration. While drummer Dave Rowntree got into local politics and bassist Alex James regularly writing for The Sun as well as Esquire (and is apparently an accomplished cheesemaker), Albarn delved into a more tribal sound, mixing it up with elements of dub and hip-hop, began foreshadowing his move to Gorillaz. Ever the consummate restless artist it seemed that Coxon’s frustrations began spilling over into the band and life and he had to wander his own way. Amicable or not, the band split up and Albarn co-produced Think Tank with the perrennial rhythm section of James and Rowntree, plus a host of featured musicians. Perhaps the absence of Coxon allowed the trio the confidence to explore areas previously deemed to outre, and it culminated in arguably their finest collection of songs. What began with 13 and took off with Think Tank has come round full circle with The Magic Whip.

...result is a cosmic electro-rock hybrid that feels organic and down to earth. If only everyone had five days in Hong Kong to get their shit together. Click To Tweet

Blur – The Magic Whip

Released April 27th, The Magic Whip will be the band’s first studio album since Think Tank (2003), although the first since 13 that will see the equal influence of guitarist Graham Coxon. The cover features the Chinese pictograms 模糊 魔鞭 (lit. Blur Magic-whip) in neon, meant in part to convey Art director Tony Hung’s impressions of Albarn’s photos and ideas from the Hong Kong recording session. “An ice cream in the UK, a firework in China and a ‘whip’ in a political sense. These extremes would reflect the different textures, breadth and depth of the album.” Having recorded the majority of the music in 2013 at Avon Studios over a five-day stint while stranded in the city due to a canceled Tokyo concert, the artwork seems to feed into that harried, raw feel of the the time and place that the recording came together.

Blur - The Magic Whip

The Magic Whip Tour in July

It was not all kismet and divine planning however, as the 15 songs that came out of the session had no lyrics, as Albarn didn’t have the necessary time to to get the anything down. Hence why it took two years to produce an album that took five days to record. Albarn commented that “sometimes, if you can’t do it all at once, it dissipates really and I don’t know what I’d sing about now with that record. There’s some great tunes on there, but it may just be one of those records that never comes out.” So passed 2013 and most of 2014, with Albarn recording and supporting his first true solo album, Everyday Robots. Having stopped off in Hong Kong again to get a feel for the city that created the songs that yet had no words, the longtime frontman searched for inspiration while Coxon worked on the songs with producer Stephen Street, well known from his work with The Smiths as well as pre-13 Blur albums. Once set in motion, vocals were quickly recorded in January 2015 and the album was mastered in February 2015.

It takes approximately ten seconds to feel that the best of Blur is back–the thrumming, advancing syncopation of the best rhythm section Brit-pop ever produced with Coxon’s distinctively strange and wonderful approach to punk guitar riffs–with new ideas that feel like a proper progression. Floating apart and self-experimentation instigated growth that is at once more evident on “New World Towers” than the traditional feeling opener “Lonesome Street” has helped the boys be able to mix and mingle contrasting styles of play in a provocative style. Early single “Go Out” feels like a fun and slippery guitar ride down a neon-lit rain-soaked sidestreet while “Ice Cream Man” starts out with synthesized Gorillaz feel that is able to meld the acoustic guitar and drums into a tune with a catchy yet forlorn refrain. “Thought I Was A Spaceman” dives deeper into the dark heart of a tale of unknown lives while “There Are Too Many of Us” feels like symphony cramped in a Kowloon elevator. The overall feel is that the band is making music rather than playing instruments, something they’ve always excelled at, but now with the addition of a wider variation of styles and experiences, the result is a cosmic electro-rock hybrid that feels organic and down to earth. If only everyone had five days in Hong Kong to get their shit together.