What has become increasingly, delightfully, apparent in recent years is how hell-bent Damon Albarn is on exploring new styles and staying relevant. Not a Madonna-style, suck-the-youth-out-of-Drake quest for relevance, but a genuine interest in noticeably changing sound every album. Why Albarn’s metamorphosis act has been so compelling is because we’ve yet to see him release one dud. Since Blur’s acrimonious split, he’s soundtracked the Chinese stage show Monkey: Journey to the West, done the supergroup thing with The Good, the Bad & The Queen and created an entire Gorillaz album on his iPad, to name a few.
Albarn’s first so-called solo album, last year’s Everyday Robots, was a thing of funereal beauty; all catatonic sub-bass and minor-key electro melancholy. It perfected the style he produced with aplomb on the late Bobby Womack’s The Bravest Man in the Universe. It was miles apart from the exuberant, sonically challenging stuff Blur had been producing in their last few albums. Then, all of a sudden, there was the new Blur album announcement. So, it was a very special, nostalgic kind of frisson brought on by the screeching feedback slinks into the dual-tracked vocals of Albarn and Graham Coxon on Go Out, Blur’s ‘official’ comeback single. Go Out was brash, buzz-y and fun, and if you listened carefully enough you could almost picture Albarn’s cheeky grin: you didn’t think I’d gone soft in my middle age, did you?
And so it was: The Magic Whip could not be further from Albarn and Sons, Everyday Robots take two. Go Out, along with I Broadcast and the opener Lonesome Street, stand up familiarly and very well with 13 and Leisure-era Blur respectively. That’s not to say this is bereft of Robots-esque stylings; My Terracotta Heart and New World Towers share the identical kind of wistfully pretty melodies and stark instrumental backing. You can add to that list the curious, but stunning, There Are Too Many Of Us. The Sydney siege-inspired showstopper is basically just a build around a staccato progression with Dave Rowntree’s military snare rhythm. Like many of the best tracks here, there’s something intangible about what makes it work. Albarn ruminates about being “dislocated by terror on the loop elsewhere/ flashing lights advocate it on big screens everywhere”. Seeping through this track, along with the slinky, foreboding Pyongyang, are more overtly political messages than Blur has done before. Ghost Ship sets up and goes with it on a gorgeous, laid back groove. Thought I Was A Spaceman somehow succeeds in sounding lovely despite its almost bizarre structure and sound effects. Blur in 2015 presents itself as a very different beast: a stuffed-full smorgasbord of ideas pent up, really, since Graham Coxon left the band. Seldom do these ‘a bit of everything’ albums work as well as this.
The Magic Whip is, then, a victory lap. And that would in normal circumstances have very negative connotations: complacency, arrogance, boredom. This is not The Magic Whip. The Magic Whip is able to bask in a misty-eyed, sentimental glory purely because it isn’t that. Sure, it’s a celebration that four guys managed to bring twelve tracks together without killing each other. And true, it is a defiant middle finger to those who thought they’d bottled it because it took them six years after their much-heralded, behemoth reunion at Hyde Park to come up with this. It’s a crowd pleaser in its manic Blur-genre hopping, but sacrifices none of its songwriting in doing so. This is remarkable in itself, given the album was essentially pieced together by Coxon via the random recordings the band had compiled since reuniting.
At the bottom of it all, Damon Albarn is so successful at changing his sound and focus because he is one of our generation’s preeminent songwriters. So it shouldn’t really be a surprise, now they’re ostensibly friends again, that The Magic Whip brings some of the band’s best ever ideas to the table; and (thankfully) the critical consensus is that this is too good to be Blur’s dying breath. For the neutrals, this might be little more than a collection of pleasant, pretty and interesting songs. It mightn’t approach the likes of Sufjan or Kendrick in the echelons of 2015’s most important releases.
On the last track of Blur’s might-have-been final album, 2003’s Think Tank, Albarn snarled, “why am I here? Because I’ve got no fucking choice…” You would have been forgiven for thinking that Think Tank was the end. Aside from Albarn’s endless thirst for new projects, Graham Coxon was churning out quality solo albums, too. Dave Rowntree has stood for the British Labour party in two elections: And Alex James has, err, got his own range of cheeses. So for the many Blur fans who loved a band whose members couldn’t stand to be around each other, The Magic Whip is a vindication; a reward for loyalty. It’s the sound of a band of one generation seamlessly entering the next: looking forward, back and coming out sounding like 2015.
As with every great Blur album, there is a great big singalong. On Ong Ong, among the la-la-las, Albarn gives us his simple, great wish: “I wanna be with you!” Whether he’s referring to his family, Blur itself, or his fans – probably all three– what is clear is something that wasn’t clear in the sonic maelstrom of Think Tank: we wanna be with Blur, too.
Blur will headline the sold out 2015 Splendour in the Grass at North Byron Parklands in July. The Magic Whip is out now on Parlophone.