Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Magic Whip - Blur’s triumphant comeback

album review

Band: Blur
Album: The Magic Whip

At the height of their fame in the ‘90s, British band Blur commanded a place of prominence in the world of music, releasing a number of albums that met critical appreciation and landed atop the charts. By the turn of the century, however, a clash of egos and diverging artistic interests had fractured their union, ultimately resulting in the group parting ways with guitarist Graham Coxon and embarking on an extended hiatus. But even though they were not making music as a collective, the ensuing years did not signal a creative lull for each individual talent. Between their side projects, Coxon’s solo albums, and Damon Albarn’s output in all his incarnations (and Alex James’ cheesemaking, of course), the decade yielded a plethora of treasures from each of their respective camps.

The musicians eventually found their way back together in 2009, thereafter performing at a number of venues and festivals, and have now made their triumphant studio comeback with the new album The Magic Whip.

The group’s first record in over a decade, their first as a four-piece in 16 years, The Magic Whip was conceived in Hong Kong during an unexpected five day break because of a cancelled festival appearance in spring 2013, before being shelved for over a year till Coxon and producer Stephen Street started shaping the recordings into an album. Albarn then added the lyrics and vocals, and the disc was eventually finalized earlier this year. The result is a set of 12 contemplative tracks that sees the band create music that ranks amongst their finest to date.

Melancholy simmers beneath the surface as the group ponders alienation and loneliness, the mundanity of modern life, and the search for something better in these songs. The album opener ‘Lonesome Street’ gives a gentle nod to their Britpop past while proving that Blur has returned with a more mature sound; the chasm of the years is bridged effortlessly, and the execution never feels forced or strained. Unburdened by commercial considerations, the band also creates songs like ‘Thought I Was a Spaceman’ and ‘Pyongyang’, each nearly six minutes in length, which let the group infuse peculiar flavours into their music. The moody experimentation doesn’t mean there’s any shortage of elegant tunes on the set. ‘Ong Ong’ is charmingly melodic, and the band puts their Britpop sensibilities to perfect use in tracks like the bouncy ‘I Broadcast’, which is instantly catchy and delightfully reminiscent of their ‘90s output.

But even in its throwback moments, Blur’s eighth studio album firmly establishes that the group isn’t stuck in the past, content with reliving their glory days. While the band retains its essence, this isn’t just a static revisit to their heyday. There are surprises aplenty on offer here. The convergence of their musical identities and the merging of indie rock flourishes with electronic embellishments creates a sophisticated concoction that is intriguingly eccentric. Albarn’s vocals may be wearier now but there is no musical struggle or friction on display in this deceptively effortless set. A decade of their individual evolution has come together in the shape of The Magic Whip. This is a smart, exciting return and it has the potential to please Blur’s long-term fans as well as win over new ones.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 11th June, 2015 *

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