On the hidden song at the end of what the world thought was Blur’s final album — 2003’s Think Tank — Damon Albarn asked, “Why am I here? I’m here cuz I got no fucking choice.” He was referring to his country of origin, but listening to the record, it was not an unreasonable question for Blur’s leader to ask himself in the context of his band.
His musical foil, guitarist Graham Coxon, had released a handful of solo albums, left Blur a year before, done a stint in rehab, and returned for a brief time before the band’s strained dynamics got the best of him. Albarn, who was a half-decade into his trip-hop mischief with Gorillaz and soundtrack work by that point, essentially continued the solo career he’d started the year before, alongside Malian musicians. World music met electronic loops under the shade of a political olive branch on Think Tank, which feels even less like a Blur album now than it did 12 years ago.
“Why am I here?” is the question Albarn could ask himself again, as Blur releases its comeback album, The Magic Whip, next week. Albarn has more of a “fucking choice” now in light of his wide-ranging and forward-thinking musical projects since Think Tank, including his first proper solo album, last year’s Everyday Robots. For many fans, new music — rather than simply nostalgia for past hits — was the endgame for the Britpop frenzy Blur reignited by reuniting for Coachella and an international tour in 2013. When a band still seems to have evolving ideas not only about music but — like Albarn’s lyrics often did — societal struggles, it’s hard to let them walk away from the conversation for good and relegate themselves to a bygone era.
Born of a 40-hour jam session in a Hong Kong recording studio, The Magic Whip is enough to make you glad that Blur is back in our musical world, and not merely because the album exists. Mostly, it finds the right balance between Albarn’s more ambitious musical ideas and eye towards international politics, Coxon’s signature guitar style, and the lyrical nostalgia that underscores Blur’s best midtempo ballads. It’s all there, except there’s something missing… or rather, not enough is missing.
There’s a gap here between the songs that are the most interesting (“Thought I Was a Spaceman,” “New World Towers,” “There Are Too Many of Us”) and the songs that are the most memorable (“Go Out,” “Ghost Ship,” “Ong Ong”). Blur sounds the strongest when its members can all agree on a direction or two, rather than cramming in a bevy of experimentation in the form of electronic beats, synth flourishes, tempo changes, voiceovers, tea kettles screeching in the background, and other sound effects.
The Parklife-esque “I Broadcast” almost loses its punk energy and legitimately great Coxon riff because of digitized distractions. “Ice Cream Man” feels more like an outtake from Albarn’s Everyday Robots than a Blur song, but it’s hard to care when you’re bouncing along and smirking at its cleverness (“summon you,” i.e. what an ice cream man does to children, is the phrase Albarn repeats the most often). “My Terracotta Heart,” the lyrical core of The Magic Whip, is a meta rumination on the strength and fragility of long-term friendship through life’s ups and downs; its dour, Radiohead-esque electronics fit the mood.
And so it becomes clear that when Albarn, Coxon, and co. go to great lengths to integrate these sound effects into the songs (rather than simply peppering them throughout for effect), the results can be stunning. On album highlight “Pyongyang,” Albarn sings about the North Korean capital city from the view of a disturbed outsider. Musically, a melting pot approach — complete with spacey synths, shimmering bells, a wood block, a drum machine, and a guitar line halfway between surf and Spaghetti Western — works well to create a sense of total disorientation. It is here that Activist Damon tops Emotional Damon for the first time on The Magic Whip — a hard-earned victory that proves Blur is still capable of writing the kind of songs that set them apart from the Britpop pack. Let’s hope they stay a while.