Blur’s members have been cast in quite divergent directions since the foursome began to disband during the recording of 2003’s Think Tank: guitarist Graham Coxon has explored lo-fi guitar scuzz and Nick Drake-style confessional folk over the course of eight solo albums; frontman Damon Albarn has become one of music’s most prodigious polymaths, whether he’s been leading a world-conquering, cartoon-fronted trip-hop group or composing operas based on 16th-century Chinese literature; drummer Dave Rowntree became a solicitor and Labour activist; and bassist Alex James makes cheese. The intersection of that complicated Venn diagram could potentially sound nothing at all like Blur.
When The Magic Whip commences with “Lonesome Street,” however, it’s almost like being transported to Blur’s imperial phase circa Parklife: Albarn riffs on Western consumer culture over Coxon’s disjointed blend of psychedelic and post-punk guitar tropes, while Britpop’s most formidable rhythm section bounces along jauntily before the song launches into a choral-inflected pre-chorus. The difference, however, is Albarn’s disposition: Rather than the cloying cheekiness that earned him the scorn of his contemporaries, he sings with a sense of regal resignation, as if wearied by the false promises of Cool Britannia. It’s a sound more akin to the band’s clever but wounded demeanor on 13 and Think Tank, albums that shed Blur’s Britpop classification for excursions into electronica, gospel, and Afro-infused pop.
The trappings of Parklife nostalgia are few and far between. Aside from the synth-powered punk rave-up “I Broadcast,” Blur spend much of The Magic Whip recasting Albarn’s downcast balladry into intriguing shapes. “Ice Cream Man,” packed with fantastical and vaguely threatening imagery, lurches with sputtering synthesizer samples and Coxon’s deceptively simple accompaniment, and “Thought I Was a Spaceman” is a tale of dystopian disconnection that builds beautifully from an itchy drum machine beat into droning swaths of guitar and haunting organ sounds. Albarn’s penchant for penning deliciously melancholic melodies hasn’t dulled one bit, and his bandmates’ willingness to frame them in everything from airy reggae (“Ghost Ship”) to stomping Krautrock (“There Are Too Many of Us”) is a happy reminder that these former teen-mag heartthrobs have an art-school pedigree to live up to.
Though much of The Magic Whip was constructed from 40 hours of exploratory jam sessions, it’s somewhat disappointing that Coxon never really unleashes the feedback-laden, virtuosic guitar work that often provided a frayed-edge contrast to Albarn’s committed harmonic pleasantness. When the band begins to tone down its textural experiments on the album’s final two songs (the saccharine sing-along “Ong Ong” and spaghetti-western dirge “Mirrorball”), it becomes apparent that their concessions to prettiness come at the cost of Coxon’s uniquely manic improvisatory genius.
What results is a mostly dour affair, with its few concessions to lightness alternating between refreshing (“I Broadcast” may be well-trodden ground, but it’s one of the few moments on this album that truly rocks) and outright annoying (“Ong Ong”). All the while, Albarn opts for impressionistic lyrics that combine the sci-fi elements of his Gorillaz output with his solo pre-occupation with fading happiness and technological alienation. When he sings of “mausoleums falling” and “perfect avenues seem[ing] empty without you” on “Pyongyang,” it’s not exactly clear what he’s going on about, but the emotions behind it are palpable, the soaring melody held aloft by church bells and organ.
The Magic Whip isn’t a triumphant return of a Britpop champion; instead, it’s a mature, measured document from a band that’s never rested on its laurels. Rather than a rose-tinted retread, it’s a prime example of Blur’s omnivorous, ever-expanding musical appetite—the reason that, years later, they still loom large among their Britpop brethren.