It’s been a long time coming and a lot of water has passed under a lot of bridges in the 16 years since Blur released their last studio album as a four piece but “The Magic Whip” has put Blur firmly back in the spotlight. It’s their 8th studio album in their 25 years or so and even without Graham Coxon, their last new LP was 12 years ago in the shape of 2003’s African/eastern-inspired “Think Tank”.
Album opener and current single “Lonesome Street” would happily fit onto any of the band’s first five albums, being chirpy, melodic and driven with catchy riffs and even a cheeky whistle along verse or two. Recent Blur (anything in the last 15 years at least) has often balanced a fine line of sounding a lot like solo Damon Albarn or the Gorillaz and both acts have thrived without the influence of Alex James, Dave Rowntree or Graham Coxon but on tracks like “Lonesome Street” or first single “Go Out”, it’s clear that the boys are all playing nicely together in every sense of the expression. Even the fifth Beatle (or Blurtle?) Stephen Street has returned to lend his magic production skills to the album and it’s all a happy accident that we even have the album at all thanks to the cancellation of a musical festival in the Far East and the thawed hostilities between the band members over the years.
“Go Out”, like “Fool’s Day”, the gem of a release for Record Store Day 2010, sounds like classic Blur or Blur-influenced Elastica from the mid 1990s and features crunching riffs from Coxon, a fiddly bassline from James and everything kept bouncing along nicely by Rowntree’s drumbeat. Albarn as always is both yobbish and eloquent in his vocal delivery, like Henry Higgins is standing behind him with a big stick, encouraging him to enunciate but also play up the mockney stereotype a bit more.
“New World Towers” is downbeat and reflective and neatly straddles the two eras of Blur between say “For Tomorrow” and “Out of Time” which is something the album seems to do on several occasions. “Ice Cream Man” which gives us both the album title and artwork is possibly the most downbeat singalong song about ice cream ever and the sadness continues through tracks like “Thought I Was a Spaceman” which sounds haunting and melancholy in that way that David Bowie makes look easy. Second preview track “There Are Too Many of Us” is a militaristic take on the same ennui coming across like a government broadcast announcing the end of the world via a 1970s disaster movie soundtrack.
“I Broadcast” lifts the mood considerably with stabbing string/synths rising into a trademark Blur guitar riff and is chaotic and anarchic like the band at their best. At times it’s the Clash, but mostly it’s Blur. “My Terracotta Heart” is a dark lullaby with a sad, sweet chorus like an 80s power ballad punctuated with weeping guitar notes and police sirens all about love and loss.
“Ghost Ship” may have the most ‘haunted’ title but it’s a summery little number with insistent sexy riffs, laid back drum loops and an overall vibe of dancing modestly by yourself at a beach party waiting for others to join in with you. They finally do join in, but you’ve enjoyed yourself so much by that point that you don’t mind.
“Pyongyang” is a soaring epic which feels like the last track of an album, all “This is a Low” but lamenting the titular city and country’s desolation. The mood lifts again considerably on “Ong Ong” which feels like a beautiful singalong love song building up layers of guitar, “la la la” backing vocals and some distorted keys which make it sound like an instant future classic. If you’re not singing “I wanna be with you” along to it, chances are you thought the last track was the album closer and you switched off.
Instead, the album chooses neither soaring epic nor singalong happiness to end with and we get “Mirrorball” which sounds like Eric Clapton, Chris Isaak and Fleetwood Mac competing to play the most haunting guitar riff in some melancholic eastern locale with wistful oriental strings. It’s definitely one of the saddest sounding songs to be about a mirrorball that I’ve ever heard and as it ends with the desperate plea “Hold close to me!”, the guitars echo and fade and the band are gone again. For 12 years? For good? Who knows? But one thing is for sure, when the four boys are back together, with no pressures or tensions, they make damned good music. It isn’t the inane bouncy mockney they are often typified as, nor the gloom-laden depressive stuff at the other end of the scale, it swings neatly between these two extremes encompassing their favourite themes and embracing audiences old and new.