BROTHERHOOD WAS BIG DURING BRITPOP. The Gallaghers, obviously, always promised imminent rock’n’roll fratricide. Blur, despite lacking shared genes, weren’t to be outdone. Each band member had one sister and no brothers, a dynamic, they said, that let them forge their own four-strong fraternity. Their relationship with their fans was like a sibling bond, too: Blur hugged their audience around the neck, punched their arm, let them tag along, grew up with them.
But grown-ups swap play fighting for adult battles, and The Magic Whip has come a long, melancholy way from the days when even Blur’s slow songs were brash. It can claim to be their first quorate album since 1999’s already bruised 13: 2003’s Think Tank featured heart-and-soul guitarist Graham Coxon only on Battery In Your Leg, the knowingly wistful “ballad for the good times”. Fences mended, Blur reunited in 2009, but on maudlin lament My Terracotta Heart Damon Albarn notes how much has changed: “When we were more like brothers/But that was years ago.”
The result of five days in a Hong Kong studio during a tour break, The Magic Whip solidified when Coxon worked on the tracks with producer Stephen Street, persuading the initially reluctant Albarn that there was a Blur album in waiting. From the start, then, The Magic Whip seemed to hang by a thread, its fragile existence reflected in its tightly-packed yet loosely bound sound, guitars, synthesizers and beats jostling like strangers in a busy street. The Hong Kong setting is more than an excuse for dubious ‘exotic’ Chinoiserie: for a record that struggles with missed beats and dropped connections, glassy modernity and urban blight, it’s a fittingly humid, human backdrop. The skyscraping New World Towers has its foundations shaken by an ominous rumble, Albarn dreamily forecasting apocalypse from the rooftops, while Ghost Ship’s languid soul unpacks its emotional cargo into “Kowloon emptiness” and ponders the need to “get away”.
Pyongyang takes Albarn’s trip to North Korea as inspiration for a twilight wander through dying empires. If the tone is elegiac, they can still sound like they are about to deliver a punchline: I Broadcast is Parklife’s Tracy Jacks with a selfie stick; Ong Ong a warm-hearted chant-along declaration of fidelity. Yet even the bubble-tea beats of Ice Cream Man, or Lonesome Street and Go Out, evoking their great hits, sound flattened by rubbish modern life, appalled by “greedy go getters” in luxury bars, let down by “talking types” with no answers. But for a collection with an eye on the setting sun and the slow decline, it’s a fine late flowering. If they’ve made it, finally, to the end, there’s nothing to regret here.
Watch the video for Lonesome Street:
There Are Too Many Of Us: