The honeymoon didn’t even last a single day.
Less than 24 hours after Blur had released “Go Out“, their first “lead single” in over 12 years, Grantland ran a lighthearted opinion piece from self-admitted Oasis fan Steven Hyden who took particular note about how for all the happy dances that Blur were inspiring for finally releasing another album after years upon years of rumors and whispers, Oasis were still, and always will be, the definitive Britpop champions. “Oasis’s best songs are transcendent,” he argued; “Blur’s best songs are very much a product of their time, and while Blur is important to the history of ’90s rock, the relevance stops there. You can’t tell me any Blur songs matters more in the culture than this. A hundred thousand people have never sung along to a Blur song at the same time.”
Hyden clearly missed them at Hyde Park.
Yet even two decades after the fabled “Battle of Britpop” galvanized a musical movement in the UK, that popular narrative still holds true: although the art and indie kids will always have a fondness for Damon Albarn’s character studies and Graham Coxon’s ever-changing guitar textures, Oasis will always be the dominant constellation in modern Britpop, Ursa Major to Blur’s Ursa Minor. Both bands were loved by critics to varying degrees, but Blur’s quirky, off-beat experiments would never be as widely accepted as the Gallagher brothers’ eternal Fab Four dumbshow.
So while countless fans were delighted by Coxon’s return to the fold in 2009 after an acrimonious split seven years prior, all those parklife people (so many people) had their patience rewarded with only concerts upon concerts, and sometimes the occasional one-off single. None of the new material was particularly transcendent, but the live shows were enthusiastic, hit-laden affairs that helped keep the foursome’s brand alive and well, making the prospect of a reunion album something very tangible. News reports of secret recording sessions and Albarn sacking a lot of the material kept appearing in vaguely official capacities, but now, against all possible odds, The Magic Whip has arrived, with promotional ice cream trucks in tow.
Starting with ambient street noise followed by a few light guitar noodles, “Lonesome Street” soon bursts the album open with a dry, simple guitar hook that feels like it was thrown together at the last second, a lazy shamble of a strum that feels both new and startling familiar at the same time. Albarn starts taking us on lyrical tarmac rides while advising his characters to take the 514 to East Grinstead, and before you know it, we’ve arrived at the strangest of destinations: a reunion album by a big-ticket band that doesn’t sound even remotely like a reunion album.
Whether it be quirky plop-synth riff that runs throughout “Ice Cream Man” or the cheap DIY orchestral stabs that announce the overpopulation plea that is “There Are Too Many of Us”, The Magic Whip is a loose, hazy shamble of an album, one that’s barely held together by its cheap keyboards and minimal instrumentation. Even taking in the mid-tempo major chord rush of “I Broadcast” or the groovy island vibe of the album’s best standalone song “Ghost Ship”, there are next to zero commercial considerations to be found. The whole album emanates the vibe of a bunch of guys goofing off in the studio instead of trying to make any sort of grand statement.
In fact, what The Magic Whip does is downright remarkable. Even as Coxon released numerous solo discs continuing his exploration of power pop and American alternative rock and Albarn, like many of his aging peers, focused more on formal craftsmanship, the two still manage to create a distinctive voice in their collaboration, something that’s only enhanced by the presence of longtime producer Stephen Street behind the boards. The appropriately-spacey E-bow groove of “Thought I Was a Spaceman” and the shambling “la la la” chant of “Ong Ong” show the band playing around with expected forms while also sticking to the bread-and-butter guitar pop that they churned out regularly during their hey-day, a mixture of elements that makes The Magic Whip sound like a slightly less formal cousin to 1995’s The Great Escape, arguably their most transitional disc.
Even with that standard in mind, The Magic Whip is a rearview album if there ever was one, deliberately tackling tropes from their past and molding them into newer, distressed shapes. “Pyongyang” has a moody groove that wouldn’t sound out of place on 13, with Albarn’s lyrics coming off as both vaguely obtuse (“The temperature keeps falling / Soon there will be no lights / Just a red glow of glass coffins / Watched by someone through the night”) and occasionally bordering that fine line between stupid and profound (“Darkness is itself” — good to know!). Even the dusty closing number “Mirrorball”, which has Albarn describing a mirrorball that is just spinning out to sea that was found “in the temple square / Under a wretched dream” tries to find meaning in disparate strands of thought, up for interpretation but providing little clues as to what it all means. Maybe it will symbolize something to someone, but it really just comes off as lazy in way Albarn has never been before, and that, in its own bizarre way, is kind of charming. At his most out-there, Albarn was never one for gussying up his words in too many metaphors, so to see him stumble this far away from his comfort zone, much less write a song like “Go Out” which exists solely for him to talk about going to the local while making his patented monkey sounds, is a quiet revelation in and of itself.
The Magic Whip is not designed for anyone but existing Blur fans, catering to them only while deliberately blocking out any newcomers with its lazy, bizarre, and somewhat demented take on pop formality. This is a goofy record, featuring a kind of scattershot energy that is usually only mustered by young bands just discovering their love of music for the first time. The formalism of earlier comeback single “Under the Westway” was a misnomer, because no one could have ever guessed the next thing that would follow would be The Magic Whip, an album that seems to have been made to please no one else but the band themselves.
Remember: they’ve played the Olympic closing ceremonies, they’ve had hits the world over, and they’ve had more than a few songs officially lionized into the pop culture consciousness. They’ve set out all the goals they’ve ever wanted to achieve. So after a decade without new material, they went ahead and made the weirdest album of their entire career just because they felt like it. No, it’s not gonna go down as their greatest achievement, but it was never designed to be. All The Magic Whip tries to be is nothing more than the band in their purest form, deprived of all commercial considerations so that their eccentricities are all that remains.
Well, guess what, boys? Mission accomplished.