Thursday, April 30, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: Blur - The Magic Whip



One of the most hotly anticipated album releases this year was the long awaited new studio album from Blur. Their first new album of original material since 2003's Think Tank and their first as a four-piece since 1999's 13, Blur dropped a bombshell on the music world on Chinese New Year in February when they announced that not only were they going to play another massive summer show in London's Hyde Park (their third time since 2009) but that they were releasing a new record in April! Titled The Magic Whip, it was recorded during sessions in Hong Kong in 2013 when the band had a week to kill during their tour of Southeast Asia after a festival in Tokyo that they  booked for was cancelled. Damon had announced onstage at a later show in Hong Kong that the band had spent time in the studio but later said he was unsure if any of it would ever be released. However, it turns out that in 2014 Graham had listened to the tapes and worked on them with longtime Blur producer Stephen Street, hammering the songs into shape before approaching Damon with the idea of making an album out of it. Damon, along with Alex and Dave, agreed and they finished the record that became The Magic Whip.  It was officially released in the UK on April 27th and in the US on April 28th and was certainly a welcome surprise; I know I didn't think there would ever be a new Blur album after they finished their final tour in early 2014. 

Ever since I received my copy of the CD on the 28th I've been inundated with messages from friends and fans asking if I have listened to it and when my review will be posted online. To answer those two questions: 1) yes, I've listened to it several times all the way through, and 2) I had never planned on writing a review for it. However, since so many people have asked me when it was going to be ready, I figured I should go ahead and actually write it!  I'm going to do a track-by-track review and then wrap it up with some final thoughts, so here goes...


But first of all, a short bit about the packaging. Those of you who regularly read this site know how I feel about the entirety of the album as a work of art: for me, the artwork and packaging are an integral part of the best albums and can really enhance the listening experience. The Magic Whip comes in a jewel case with an OBI strip that has the band name and album title on the front and the track listing on its reverse. The album booklet is full of doodles, drawings, Chinese images, and scribbled and typed lyrics and notes, while the disc itself has a smiling sun-face. Overall, it's a very attractive package that continues Blur's tradition of presenting their albums in a striking and uniquely artistic manner.  Now, on to the music...

1. Lonesome Street

In keeping with Blur's tradition of fabulous album openers, "Lonesome Street" is a worthy addition to a line-up that boasts classics like "Beetlebum," "Ambulance," "Girls and Boys," and "For Tomorrow" in its ranks. From the opening lilting guitar notes to when the band burst forth in classic mid-1990s technicolor Blur mode with a Kinks-worthy guitar riff, you know immediately that the band is back in full force. And like all classic Blur, it's infectiously melodic but also has a dollop of weirdness that keeps it interesting; this is brought to us by Graham during his vocal responses to Damon's verses and, especially, in the discordant bridge that sounds like something from Blur's earlier incarnation as Seymour via Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Throw in Alex's always inventive basslines and solid, driving Ringo-esque drums from Dave (a very good thing!) and you've got the perfect album opening statement and one of the great Blur songs of their career. A more perfect way to start the album you couldn't ask for...
2. New World Towers

...which then brings us to a real clunker.  From the very first listen, "New World Towers" sounded to me like a refugee from Damon's 2014 solo album Everyday Robots. Now, I was very well-known and vocal in my dislike of that album when it first came out, although I completely changed my tune after seeing Damon play it live. I "got" the album afterwards and now I love it (although I still maintain it's let down by Richard Russell's production, but that's another story...). So the fact that "New World Towers" sounds like something from that album isn't a bad thing...but it just doesn't sound like Blur to me. This is the one song on the album (in reality the only song on the album) that to me sounds like solo Damon with Graham, Alex, and Dave as his backing band.  The sparse quasi-reggae rhythm, the production, the vocal tracks...it's all quite beautiful and Graham and Alex in particular really shine, but it's just missing that essential ingredient that would make it sound like Blur.

3. Go Out

"Go Out" was the first track released from the album, on the same day as the album announcement in February. While I and most Blur fans went nuts over it, repeated listens and a bit of perspective showed that it was a solid but unspectacular song that was very catchy but continued Damon's tradition (at the time) of not writing a Blur song with chorus. As the album release drew near I was prepared to dismiss this song even more, but you know what? In the context of the album, it works perfectly. I like it even better now; it completely fits in with the vibe and feel of the album and the sequencing of placing it right after "New World Towers" is absolutely brilliant.  It's got a pounding, bouncy rhythm driven by Alex and Dave, really fuzzy, noisy guitars from Graham, and Damon has perfected his lazy I'm-so-much-cooler-than-you-it's-not-even-real vocal delivery. This is strutting, cocky Blur at their very best. And no matter how silly it may seem, you can't help but sing along about "going to the lo-o-o-o-o-cal" and love every second of it.

4. Ice Cream Man

This is a weird one for me. When I first heard the opening synthesizer burbles and hip-hop beat, I assumed it was going to be a Gorillaz song masquerading as a Blur song. Now, I'm a huge fan of Gorillaz but I like my Blur to be kept separate, thank you very much. However, once the strummed acoustic guitar comes in and the drums and bass join in. it starts to sound more like Blur (albeit still with a strong Gorillaz vibe).  All in all, while it's not my favorite song on the album, I really like it.

5. Thought I Was a Spaceman

The lone epic on the album, clocking in at over six minutes, and the centerpiece of The Magic Whip. It starts off with a quiet drum machine/bass rhythm pattern and eerie guitar and piano chords as Damon's disembodied voice starts singing. It sounds like the sort of stuff they were doing in 1997 and 1999, but updated for 2015. It's hard not to feel pangs of regret when Damon sings "I thought we succeeded...but in fact we failed." When Dave's drum fill heralds his and Alex's entry just before the three-minute mark, the song takes off to another level. It becomes even grander when the synthesized swaths of noise come in during the instrumental bit in the middle, driven along by some fuzzed-out bass guitar and the melody tapped out on vibraphone. The song is surprisingly light on Graham until the last minute or so when he unleashes some ferocious guitar before it all quiets down and ebbs away. "Thought I Was a Spaceman" has echoes of old Blur, Gorillaz, Radiohead, and Beck, and is already one of my favorite Blur songs ever. A stunning achievement and while it's perfect as the centerpiece of the album, I think it would also have been a great choice elsewhere on the album (keep reading to see what I'm talking about).  

6. I Broadcast

Similar to "Lonesome Street," this song has a mid-1990s Blur vibe to it, but gussied up to sound more modern. It starts off with another almost Kink-ish riff on synthesizer and bass guitar before Graham comes slashing in around the 30-second mark.  It's got a bouncy verse that almost recalls "Song 2" and a chorus that would feel at home on Parklife. This is one of those songs that is great on record but will be even better live where the crowd can shout out "I Broadcast!" during the choruses.

7. My Terracotta Heart

From the very first time I heard this song, it sounded like a rewrite of "Hollow Ponds" from Everyday Robots. Musically, it sounds exactly like it should be from that album, especially with Damon's vocal melody and delivery. However, the chorus saves the song and is quite beautiful. Lyrically, it's in the same vein as "Battery In Your Leg" in that it seems to be a song from Damon to Graham about the past tribulations of their lifelong friendship. Graham's gentle and intricate guitar work is a highlight of this track and repeated listens make me like it more and more.

8. There Are Too Many Of Us

Starting off with a martial beat and a haunting synthesizer melody atop a backdrop of strummed acoustic guitar, Damon's faraway, echoey voice sings out the verses before the full band explode into life 1:45 into the song. While the song doesn't have a chorus and feels a little bit incomplete, it's interesting and catchy enough that it's memorable and one of the highlights of the latter half of the album.

9. Ghost Ship

A real standout track for me, "Ghost Ship" is Damon effortlessly writing a breezy, windows-down-on-a-sunny-day driving song that is absolutely gorgeous and catchy as all hell. Rhythmically it sounds like a song an American jam-band might play, but Alex's punchy bassline and the sun-drenched vocal harmonies take it to another level. The chorus is not traditional in the sense that it's over the same chords as the verse, but Damon's delivery is enough to differentiate it. Graham plays some exquisite, almost jazzy guitar licks throughout before a wonderful mini guitar solo. There's even some delicate saxophone toward the end that further enhances the song. One of the definite highlights of the record.

10. Pyongyang

Lyrically inspired by Damon's recent visit to North Korea, it starts out with what almost sounds like the rhythm to the cry of "bring out your dead" tapped out on a triangle.  Eastern-sounding guitar and synthesizer echo eerily before the drums and bass come in, while Graham plays some Asian-sounding twangs on guitar after each of Damon's verses. The overall effect is very moody and intense, a smoldering ember that ignites into one of the most beautiful choruses Damon has ever written for Blur.  The song ends in a wash of noise and effects that fade out. Beautiful song. 

11. Ong Ong

And then we get to the only other song on the album, besides "New World Towers," that I don't particularly care for. But while "New World Towers" is at least a little interesting,"Ong Ong" just grates on me. Yes, it's bouncy and happy-sounding, with a catchy refrain of "I wanna be with you" during the chorus that's sure to make it a live favorite, but for me it all seems too trite and twee. Damon can write these kind of la-la-la strummy singalong tunes in his sleep, and he's done it better before (see: "Mr. Tembo"). This song would have been perfect as a b-side and in fact sounds like the bastard cousin of "Money Makes Me Crazy" from the Think Tank era, but on The Magic Whip it's by far the weakest song. I don't hate this song and I certainly don't skip over it, but I tolerate it more than I enjoy it. Maybe my opinion will change if/when I see them play it live, but for now it's firmly in the "Blur songs I would be embarrassed to play to my friends who have never heard the band before" category.

12. Mirrorball

Ah, the album closer. Blur typically have some pretty grand statements when it comes to closing out their albums: "Essex Dogs," "Yuko & Hiro," and "Battery In Your Leg" come to mind, as does, of course, the majestic "This Is a Low" (which was so heavy that the aural palate cleanser of "Lot 105" was tacked onto the end of Parklife to lighten the mood a bit). "Mirrorball" starts off with some Old West-sounding guitar strums drenched in reverb and indeed the entire song is a mixture of brooding Old West meets East, with eastern-tinged string parts between the verses making an effective counterpoint with the guitar and piano. It's certainly one of Blur's best songs on the album and in line with some of Damon's best, most emotional music, but is it good as an album closer? My initial reaction after my first run through the album was to be a bit underwhelmed by the song. Then I realized the song itself is fine, it's just that as a closing track it felt unsatisfying and unresolved...I kept feeling as though there needed to be one more song to wrap the album and its statement up in a bold way, but this was it. So remember what I said before when I was writing about "Thought I Was a Spaceman?" I think that song would have been a better closing track, although it works so well as a centerpiece that its impact would have probably been blunted. Instead, I believe that swapping "Mirroball's" place in the running order with "Pyongyang" would have been a good move and would have made the sequencing of the album that much stronger. But then again, I'm not in the band, so...

There you have it. I've now listened to the album all the way through SIX times in the last day and a half and I feel as though I've got a good handle on it as it starts to get more and more familiar. Final thoughts: it's a very, very good, even great album. I don't rank it at the top when it comes to their albums...for me it's in the middle of the pack. However, given its competition (for me, "Blur," "13," "Modern Life is Rubbish," and "Parklife" are all ahead of it) that's no slight. The truth is that Blur have never made a bad album and while the potential was there for The Magic Whip to be a crushing disappointment after the twelve year gap between releases, the fact of the matter is that like their 1990s contemporaries Suede who came back after eleven years with the excellent Bloodsports in 2013, Blur not only didn't disappoint, but they impressed and delivered the goods in spades. In terms of the production, most of Blur's best albums were done with Stephen Street at the helm and he again shows his importance with this one.  The potential was there for The Magic Whip to sound disjointed and patched together given the jamming nature of the Hong Kong sessions and the fact that Graham and Street pieced the songs together from the tapes, but it's surprisingly cohesive, not only on an individual song level but as a whole. If Blur hadn't told us about the creative process that went into this record, you'd never know it was made in conditions under which they'd never previously worked.

My gut feeling is that this is probably the last album we'll get from Blur; it seems as though they wanted the final word in their discography to involve all four of them and that they didn't want Think Tank to be their last studio album. If this does indeed turn out to be the case, they've certainly gone out on top. The Magic Whip is a worthy addition to their excellent catalog of music and an inviting listen for we Blur fans who have "a love of all sweet music."

MY RATING: 9/10

13 comments:

  1. Good review. So I assume you listen to music all the time. What's one of the newer releases you've been listening to lately? For me it's The Black Keys--Turn Blue album. It's the first one I heard by them although I saw them play on Austin City Limits live, and they were pretty good for just two guys, but the newer album expands upon their sound.

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    1. I do indeed listen all the time, or as much as I can. Always have...when I was a kid/teenager/college student I always listened while studying, doing chores, etc. Only time I didn't (and still don't) is if I'm reading or playing guitar (obviously) :). Even now, at work, I listen on earphones when working at my desk and if I'm going to be working in the same lab for a sustained period, in there, too.

      Well, now it's this Blur album that is the new release I've been listening to almost non-stop the last two weeks. Before that, it's been a pretty quiet year for me in terms of new albums. But so far I've really enjoyed Trail of Dead's (they're from Austin...ever listen to them?) new album from the tail end of 2014, and the new Charlatans and Neal Morse Band's albums (both from early 2015). But this new Blur one is the album of the year for me, and not just because they've been a favorite band of mine for so long. It's really freaking excellent!

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  2. I thought I read about Trail of Tears on here irrc, though it might have been elsewhere, although I've not actually heard their music. I do like Neal Morse and the band he came from a lot, Spock's Beard, who have a new album coming out soon. Plus I haven't picked up their last one yet, but want too. I'm pretty sure I'd like anything by them.

    I'll have to find an album by Blur and give it a listen. Course you can always listen to YT for songs etc. But sometimes hearing the whole thing is more revealing (and sometimes you can find that on there too). I've not registered for Spotify yet either, another good resource.

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  3. The most recent Spock's Beard album from two years ago was incredible...easily their best since Neal left (although I did like the ones with Nick as frontman). And Trial of Dead, I've been a huge fan of them since they first came out...if you're into prog rock crossed with noisy Husker Du-type power chords, you'll dig them.

    If you start with Blur, I'd say go for the albums Modern Life is Rubbish, Blur, and the new one (The Magic Whip) to get a nice cross section of what they're all about. Of course feel free to ask me any questions as I know them inside and out :)

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  4. Great review Drew. I think The Magic Whip is one of the better Blur albums, and I agree that Ghost Ship is a standout track. The only thing that I feel hampers the album is the running order. Having listened to album a lot since its release, I get the impression that the band realised that a lot of the songs have similair tempos and spaced the tracks accordingly. Although it's a collection of great songs, it doesn't seem to flow as well as some of their previous albums. I've been messing about with an alternative running order and came up with this:

    1. Lonesome Street
    2. I Broadcast
    3. New World Towers
    4. There Are Too Many Of Us
    5. Pyongyang
    6. Go Out
    7. Ice Cream Man
    8. Ong Ong
    9. My Terracota Heart
    10. Thought I Was A Spaceman
    11. Ghost Ship
    12. Mirrorball

    It still begins and ends in the same places, but the songs seem to sit together more harmoniously. Give it a try!

    Scott

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    1. An interesting rearrangement, Scott...I'll give it a try. I agree with you that even though it's a great album, the flow is a bit weird. It sounds cohesive but thematically it's all over the place. My biggest beef is how the excitement and energy of Lonesome Street comes to a crashing halt with New World Towers right after it. I'm still on the fence with Mirrorball as the closer...great tune but not sure it's as grand a closing song as the album deserves. Interesting discussion, now you've got me thinking about this...:)

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    2. Just realised I added that as a new post instead of a reply...sorry!

      Scott

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  5. I felt the same about Lonesome Street leading in to New World Towers. It immediately puts the breaks on the album and made me resent NWT when it's it's actually a very good song! I think the same thing happened for me with I Broadcast. On the album as released, it struck me as a tired blast of punk dumped awkwardly in the middle of a mature sounding album. But placed after Lonesome Street it sounds great!

    I know what you mean about Mirrorball closing the album. I tried a couple of arrangements with There Are Too Many Of Us as the last track. The abrupt ending seemed like a great way for the album to end, but it left the rest of the album lacking. At one point I had Mirrorball as track 5 and Pyonyang at the end, but Pyongyang seemed a little too dark for a closer..

    Let me know if you come with an a different running order :)

    Scott

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    1. I can see you thinking Pyongyang a dark and heavy closer but I think that's why I like it in that slot. Mirrorball is a fine song but the album just seems a tad unresolved to me when it's over...it's a bit unsatisfying. New World Towers I'm still on the fence about as it sounds nothing like a Blur tune, sounds 100% a Damon solo track to me (which is fine, but out of place on this album).

      In my proposed revamped running order can I leave Ong Ong out altogether? (Or at least bury it somewhere where it won't annoy me)? :)

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    2. Maybe you could have Ong Ong as a secret hidden bonus track? ;)

      As good as New World Towers is, it does seem to be the odd one out on the album. It would certainly sound more at home on Everyday Robots...

      I just tried swopping the positions of Mirrorball and Pyonyang in my alternative running order, and you're right, Pyongyang is a killer closing track. That double chorus near the end is epic (the phrasing of Graham's backing vocals remind me of 80s Bowie for some reason) and the coda drifts off nicely. Also, Mirrorball sounds much better nestled between other tracks.

      Scott

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    3. Scott, totally agree. New World Towers is a fine song and Blur as a band do a nice job on it, but it sounds so out of place it sticks out like a sore thumb on TMW. As you said, would've been perfect on Everyday Robots. I had initially thought My Terracotta Heart also sounded too much like an ER track (it's very similar to Hollow Ponds in the verse melody) but the chorus is gorgeous and the more I listened to it, it sounded like Blur. NWT just never gets there, to me.

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