Review | True wonder is hard to find as Blur finally crack their disjointed ‘Magic Whip’

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The Magic Whip

[Parlophone]

Early reviews of Blur’s new album The Magic Whip have been almost comically over the top. In places it’s almost like Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr defrosted John Lennon and George Harrison (that’s making the presumably correct assumption that all well-off people are cryogenically frozen when they die) and a new Beatles album magically appeared out of thin air. The praise reads like a theatre poster: “Triumphant” – The Daily Telegraph, “Oozes real magic” – Q, “Seductive” – Rolling Stone. Is it justified? Well, not quite.

It’s an album that was apparently recorded in just five days – the band worked on it while stranded in Hong Kong and then left it alone completely for a year and a half, apparently because they weren’t sure it was good enough to see the light of day. After being reworked musically, Albarn went back to it on his own and added the vocals. It seems like a very disjointed way to record and the resultant sound also gives that impression. Many have praised it for being haunting, progressive and different. It is certainly all of those things, and they deserve enormous credit for taking their music in a new direction, but it’s also a bit leaden at times and that stems from the aforementioned disjointedness.

Opening track ‘Lonesome Street’ and lead single ‘Go Out’ are exceptions to the rule. They definitely sound like ‘classic’ Blur, and in the case of the former it’s surprisingly very good. ‘Lonesome Street’ is cheerful and bouncy without trying to be ‘Park Life’ or ‘Country House’. ‘Go Out’ is poor in comparison, although ‘New World Towers’, sandwiched between them, is one of the times when the sparse/eastern/sci-fi theme that runs throughout The Magic Whip really works.  ‘Ice Cream Man’ then starts up and it’s a little jarring, like they tried to re-record the Blur album over Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots and the tape kept getting stuck. One immediately begins to wonder if he went into business for himself here: it certainly doesn’t sound like the rest of the band was overly involved outside of those Five Days in Hong Kong (sounds like a shit movie directed, starring and written by Julie Delpy, doesn’t it?) and after ‘Go Out’ it is almost impossible to figure out where Damon Albarn ends and Blur begins most of the time.

The work of the other band members is still there but it’s obscured by his presence and how over-produced everything feels. This presumably had to be done to cover up for the fact that the entire group was together for such a short period of time, but it comes across as overbearing. ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ and ‘My Terracotta Heart’ are all melancholic and electronica and for some reason ‘I Broadcast’, an upbeat pop song, is wedged between them. Second single ‘There Are Too Many Of Us’ is genuinely excellent and a real highpoint. It sounds like they sampled a song off a Final Fantasy game then added in some thumping drums and Albarn’s haunting voice. The result is weird and wonderful.

There are other highlights – ‘Ghost Ship’ is exotic and buoyant with hints of reggae while the closer ‘Mirrorball’ is grim and poignant in a way that is actually evocative as opposed the ridged, composed ‘Pyongyang’ (which may be the point, but it doesn’t make it any good to listen to). ‘Ong Ong’ is sickly sweet and out of place, particularly in its position as the penultimate song on what could conceivably be the last thing that is heard from the band. Overall, there is plenty to like here and The Magic Whip has plenty going for it when things work. Frustratingly, that happens on every other song on average. The way the record is laid out is perplexing and some of the song choices unnecessary. Put aside the over-enthusiastic praise, pick around the dross and there’s some of Blur’s best, most mature work to date here.

TWO AND A HALF OUT OF FIVE

Featured image credit: Linda Brownlee

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