I’m gearing up for Monday when the new Blur record, The Magic Whip, will be released. In fact, it’s the first time the toothsome foursome have released anything long-form together for 12 years. I’m 37 and was at school in England in the mid-1990s when you had to nail your colours to the mast: Blur or Oasis? Being a contrary little sod I went for Suede, naturally. Oops.
The Magic Whip was recorded in the dribs-and-drabs contemporary style beloved of comebacks – a vocal added here, a drum overdub there – but the much-vaunted (maybe a touch apocryphal?) tale is that much of the record was laid down while band members were on an unplanned two-day layover in Hong Kong, (which also makes this the greatest collection of pop songs written in China that I’ve ever heard).
Where Britpop’s derring-do was all about making sure the Stellas were cold, the Adidas shell toes were box-fresh and the drugs appeared as “flowers” on the expenses sheets, that era’s survivors have made an art of getting down to work and taking succour and inspiration from relatively hard-won sobriety. And it sounds great. Two days to do a wonderful new record?
Because The Magic Whip is wonderful and sounds like it’s full of wonder, too; full of seeing new places with open eyes and a notebook to hand. In 1994 (God, that was 21 years ago!) the new place that Blur wrote about was the East End of London; now it’s the East. Damon Albarn sings of the Java Sea on the irresistible “Terracotta Heart” and cherry blossom in his Ian Dury-as pretty-boy Essex baritone on “Pyongyang”. Album closer “Mirrorball” gets a subtle wash of some sort of Old Oriental fragrance more subtle than Bowie’s “China Girl” and less Nanki-Poo than Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Fishing Junks at Sunset.”
Mostly, The Magic Whip is made from a languid energy (who wants grown men posturing as the popstrels of their or anyone else’s youth?) and this smooth control suits Blur very nicely. Dave Rowntree’s drums are martial, clattering and tight; Alex James’s bass is all swooping power then jazz loose; Graham Coxon’s guitar wigs out or finger-picks beautifully; and his reedy harmonies romance Damon Albarn, who proves singers and songwriters are better as bandmates than solo artists almost all of the time.
What is the difference between a solo LP from Albarn – the best songwriter of my teens and thirties – and an LP from the band he’s in? There’s no contest. When the tension, competition, experience and boredom are allied to working hard on fashioning those rare nuggets of spotless inspiration, great bands happen. For Blur, that love that dare not speak its name – that complicated thing between old friends – has been spurred to the finish line by a magic whip.
Robert Bound is Monocle’s Culture editor.