Blur – The Magic Whip
There are days I feel sort of sorry for Damon Albarn. Yes, he’s had an astounding string of success, built upon being the driving force behind not only the premier British rock band of the 1990s, but also, with Gorillaz, the best cartoon hip hop group of what is an admittedly small grouping. Still, his success in the American market began with a snarky joke and the image of his day-job band there is indelibly linked with it. “Song 2”, from 1997’s self-titled album, is a parody, a song that takes the piss out of muscular American grunge rock. It was also a massive hit, forever making Blur the “Woo Hoo Song” band in the minds of the Great Unwashed. Despite the classic albums they’ve released, the crowds keep chanting for “Woo Hoo”.
Blur also marked an end-point for the band. They would release two more albums, neither of which were quite as good as their 1993-1997 output. 13 would find them following the rest of the alternative rock movement into light electronica, and 2003’s Think Tank found them beholden to Albarn’s expanding musical horizons and his preoccupation with hip hop and Gorillaz.
The Magic Whip, though, sets the clock back in a rather satisfying way. Blur stepped away from their heritage by embracing the lo-fi sounds of the American indie movement; The Magic Whip finds its way back to the days of Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape. Part of this is the return of guitarist Graham Coxon, who left the band a week into the Think Tank sessions. His presence adds a leavening effect to Albarn’s kaleidoscope of influences, which are also toned down appreciably. The samples and synths used here are much more subtle than they were on the previous two albums, allowing the songs to breathe and the peculiar melodies – always the band’s strongest feature – to shine through. Coxon’s guitar work plays off of these incorporated sounds beautifully; it’s an amazing thing to hear a burbling, grinding low-end synth, and then to hear Coxon’s familiar strum comes trundling out of it. It’s those sort of moments that their best work was based off of, and The Magic Whip holds its own amongst those works. While it feels a trifle long (a few too many mid-tempo exercises) and it’s not as coherent as, say, Parklife, it’s a welcome return from a band whose goodwill had very nearly run out.