Album Review: Blur Comes to a Personal and Professional Crossroads on ‘The Magic Whip’

Blur
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In order to finish The Magic Whip, its first album in a dozen years, Blur had to revisit the past. This wasn't the ­distant past of 1994's Parklife or 1995's The Great Escape, cheeky Britpop triumphs that branded the London foursome as Gen X's answer to The Kinks; nor was it the more recent past of 2003's muted, muddled Think Tank, recorded amid the departure of guitarist Graham Coxon and released just before a five-year hiatus.

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Instead, The Magic Whip meant returning to May 2013, when the cancellation of the Tokyo Rocks festival left a reunited Blur with five days to kill in Hong Kong. While there, the band jammed on wordless doodles that sat idle until fall 2014, when Coxon enlisted producer and frequent collaborator Stephen Street to help piece together songs. Globetrotting frontman Damon Albarn then returned to Hong Kong to write lyrics, hoping to recapture the spirit.

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He has largely succeeded, as The Magic Whip is a fascinating snapshot of a group coming to personal and professional crossroads in a strange city where modern living leads to bewilderment and alienation -- subjects Albarn has explored in his many side projects, including Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad & The Queen. He touches on outsourced labor in "Lonesome Street," which opens the LP with a blast of Blur's old-school pop-art guitars. On the dubby "New World Towers," he sings, "Log in your name and pray," bowing to the devices we all worship.

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The more dystopian tracks -- the gentle post-­apocalyptic fantasy "Thought I Was a Spaceman," the dragging synth-pop elegy-to-empire "Pyon­gyang" -- recall Everyday Robots, Albarn's 2014 solo debut. He has gone from musing on everyday English life to tackling global issues, and when the band gets him to perk up, like on the buzzy rocker "I Broadcast," it's classic Blur, rebooted.

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But there's also a human subplot. Space-folk ballad "My Terracotta Heart" details Albarn's renewed friendship with Coxon. "Ghost Ship" features Albarn swaying to some Steely Dan soul, celebrating a lost feeling that has "come back much harder." For once, he's not thinking about the past or future -- just enjoying the moment.

This story originally appeared in the May 2 issue of Billboard.