First Impressions: Blur, “The Magic Whip”

blurIf there is any great surprise about The Magic Whip, it’s that it’s taken this long for song titles like “Lonesome Street,” “Ghost Ship,” and “Thought I Was a Spaceman” to grace the back cover of a Damon Albarn project, all of them suggestive of the kind of dislocation and malaise that run like dark, troubled waters through the albums of Blur and Gorillaz, to say nothing of Everyday Robots and The Good, the Bad and the Queen: Alienation that’s just a bit less brooding, a bit more gentlemanly, and somehow a bit more English than the 21st Century histrionics of, say, Radiohead. It is to Albarn’s credit as an auteur that these through-lines in his work are so distinctive and so distinguished, but it’s to the credit of Blur that, in actual practice, none of those or any other songs on The Magic Whip quite sound like they could have fit on any of Albarn’s extracurriculars; there’s a pop formalism that places the best Blur songs in the lineage of the Kinks, which is to say, not quite adjacent to Plastic Beach, while the songs are all tuneful and punchy in ways that the sleepy and staid Everyday Robots and Good/Bad/Queen never quite mustered. You can credit Albarn for the moodiness, the after-hours atmospherics, gurgling synths, and grimy, clattering beats that underscore these songs—by now familiar elements in the Blur discography, keeping Blur charmingly ramshackle and out of focus, Think Tank rootless and weightless, and The Magic Whip dusty and gray, tinged in melancholy like “Tracy Jacks” was but never quite swinging like that classic. The album never turns sleepy or unfocused, either, though, and to that we could give credit to Graham Coxon, the rather more conservative guitarist who makes sure these songs have memorable riffs and hummable melodies, as well as to the rhythm section who ground the whole thing, shuffle and stab when they need to but also lend “There Are Too Many of Us” a regal, stately grace. If this all sounds rather like a Blur album, well, it is: As a reunion project it doesn’t roar like Sleater-Kinney’s big comeback did earlier this year—and like that album, it never really surprises, either—but The Magic Whip is supremely confident just the same, picking up as though so many years hadn’t elapsed since Think Tank (and almost acting like that album never happened, actually). The record doesn’t reinvent Blur but it does suggest that they can still make killer Blur records, of a piece with The Great Escape and Parklife but with its own distinctions: They dazzle gradually, with careful craft, which is about the least exciting praise one might lend to a rock and roll album but it’s praise nevertheless. The Magic Whip comes on slow but charms indubitably, the skill and precision in its words, melodies, and arrangements bringing warmth to loneliness, allure to alienation, and real pleasure to having the gang back together.

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