I must start this review with an apology to my high school English teacher who forbade me from using the first or second person in critical writing. Since I have already begun to commit the sins of the first person and will soon commit those of the second, I now offer my sincerest apologies to you, Mr. Davenport. It’s nothing personal.
Blur, however, is very personal, which is precisely why I’m going heavy on the me-me-me right now. I love Blur. To pretend otherwise would be a mistake, and I know this because I spent an entire draft pretending otherwise. The result was five hundred words of didactic background information and dead-eyed analysis. Trust me when I say you’d rather read this one.
Now that I’ve laid my personal biases on the table, shall we proceed?
The Magic Whip is, first and foremost, not supposed to exist. The initial sessions for the album happened as a result of the Tokyo Rocks festival cancellation in May 2013. Too bored to do nothing for five days, Blur snagged some studio space in Hong Kong, jammed out and recorded an album’s worth of material, which they then promptly shelved.
All signs pointed towards said material becoming Blur’s lost album. It remained untouched as of July 2014, when Damon Albarn admitted to NME that the material would most likely be “one of those records that never comes out.” Enter longtime Blur producer Stephen Street and guitarist Graham Coxon, the first people to revisit the recordings and the latter somewhat motivated by his guilt over the deterioration of his relationship with Albarn. Coxon walked out early in the recording process for 2003’s Think Tank and stayed out until 2009. The Magic Whip thus represents the return of the Blur as we fondly remember them, Coxon in tow for the first time since 1999’s 13.
His return is a welcome one. Albarn and Coxon’s creative tension, evident since the group’s 1991 debut, defines and drives Blur. The Magic Whip serves as that collaboration’s return to glory and a vehicle for repairing the ties that once bound. Albarn sings, “We were more like brothers / But that was years ago,” over Coxon’s wounded guitar on the tender “My Terracotta Heart”. Album opener “Lonesome Street” serves as a delightful testament to mended fences, complete with Albarn sharing vocal duties with his guitarist. Coxon returns the favor by backing Albarn with an infectious riff expertly tailored to Albarn’s enthusiastic verses.
Coxon’s guitar and Albarn’s vocals hit critical rock n’ roll mass on the fantastic Modern Life Is Rubbish throwback “I Broadcast”, boosted by a rollicking bassline from Alex James. James’ consistency and swagger holds the record in place without ever intruding. The East Asian theme keeps The Magic Whip from flying away from itself, but James and drummer Dave Rowntree – the latter excellent on “Ghost Ship” – tie the album’s complexities together with an unparalleled finesse.
That The Magic Whip holds together at all is miracle in and of itself, and a feat only Blur is capable of achieving. The songs fly from foreboding (the Bowie-ish “I Thought I Was A Spaceman”) to political (the militant march of “There Are Too Many Of Us”) to compulsively enjoyable (the sparkling “Ong Ong”). Some are better than others, but there’s not a dud in the bunch.
As a fan, I love this record. As a critic, I’m genuinely pleased with it. It’s equal parts thought-provoking and entertaining, a long-awaited effort from a band clearly not as finished as once presumed. This is modern Blur in the traditional Albarn-Coxon-James-Rowntree sense. And what a tremendous pleasure it is to have them back.