There is a clip from about 1995 knocking around online from music TV show The White Room. On the clip, Damon Albarn duets with Ray Davies on Waterloo Sunset and then Ray gently nudges Damon to sing the chorus of Parklife. The chroniclers of 60s and 90s London, who both have a difficult reputation, are content in one another’s company, on stage and alone without their bands of brothers.
There has been an award-winning musical based on the life of The Kinks, and Davies is still performing in his 70s. Albarn, a father in his 40s, has also dabbled in musicals; he’s working on one for this year’s Manchester International Festival for Alice in Wonderland, having already worked on one about Asian myth and Renaissance-era England. He has recruited his old band – Graham Coxon on guitar, Alex ‘Cheese Farmer’ James on laconic bass, and solicitor Dave Rowntree on drums – for Blur’s first album in a decade. Whether this is a precursor to ‘Parklife: The Musical’ we don’t know, but The Magic Whip is certainly as far away from all the extra-curricular malark as one could hope it to be.
Inspired by their performances as a foursome in 2012 for the London Olympics, and playing the hits on a 2009 tour, four men who are still musicians at heart decamped to Hong Kong. The 12-track record is the result, and the album’s release teased with three singles: the Kinks-y opener Lonesome Street, with a vocal bit from Graham; Go Out (“To the lo-caaaal!”), which sounds like the morning after the Greek trip on Girls & Boys; and the wistful There Are Too Many of Us (“in tiny houses, here and there”), which kicks into gear halfway through and is the album’s most insistent track.
All three sound like vintage Blur, with elements of their late period (the self-titled album, 13 and Think Tank) as well as their first great efforts (Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape). I Broadcast and Ong Ong are both particularly good crowdpleasers, the former with guitars that remind us of Popscene and Country House, the latter with an arms-around-the-shoulder “I wanna be with you” refrain and a cycling chord progression that any numpty can play.
Albarn is more philosophical, as he was on 2014’s excellent Everyday Robots, and he is not writing character songs like Colin Zeal any more. He is more interested in location, as on Pyongyang and Thought I Was a Spaceman. Funky bass and guitar underscore a fun bouncy vocal on Ghost Ship, and shows the virtue of being a talented group of musicians. Coxon’s solo career has taken in punky thrashing and finger-picked folk, and he deserves as much kudos as Damon for fattening the Blur sound in 2015. Likewise sonic mastermind Stephen Street, to whom Damon gave the session tapes to bring it all together.
There are some electronic bleeps on the understated Ice Cream Man (“with a swish of his Magic Whip”) which sounds like an offcut from Damon’s solo record. His delivery enriched by ten years of being a Gorilla, Damon no longer sounds like an irritating lout, a character he embodied on Parklife, and one Liam Gallagher never truly left behind (Liam will always be an irritating lout). On Mirrorball, the album’s closing track, Damon sounds better than ever, crooning a ‘last dance’ slowie while some reverbed guitars echo behind him.
The Magic Whip will probably provoke the usual divide of hardcore fans, apologists, and naysayers, however this is still the same influential Blur. Their stuff-you attitude to making a difficult album after a couple of hits is admirable. Their biggest American hit is them rocking out and going ‘woo hoo!’. But if you’re seeing the band play new tunes and old this summer, at least you won’t be hollering too hard for a Song 2 courtesy of The Magic Whip’s quality.
The Magic Whip by Blur can be ordered here.