Blur is probably the best band to have never made a great album.
Blur is probably the best band to have never made a great album. Sure, Damon Albarn and company made good albums and they’ve written several great songs, but they haven’t made a cohesive piece of music that stands alongside the best long players of their era. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but a lot of undue expectations have been placed on their new album on account of this misconception of the group. The Magic Whip isn’t a great album, and that’s fine. What isn’t fine is how The Magic Whip fails. On their triumphant return to the songwriting well after a 13-year absence, the London lads have done worse than make an uneven, spotty record; they’ve made an unmemorable one.
It’s hard to imagine why Blur decided to head back into the studio after such a long hiatus. The Blur story was essentially finished, and aside from the occasional cash-in gig where Albarn, Graham Coxon and company would play old favorites, it seemed as if everyone involved had moved on. Yet here is The Magic Whip, another chapter in the band’s often-confusing story.
What is refreshing about the album is that Albarn’s influence is wisely reduced. The frontman’s rebirth as a pseudo-renaissance man could have led to The Magic Whip becoming a ponderous, ego-driven slog in the vein of the band’s previous final album, Think Tank. Perhaps having Coxon back in the fold has kept him in check, but there aren’t the slightest traces of Gorillaz, Democrazy or any of Albarn’s other extracurricular interests here. For better or worse, The Magic Whip is a band effort.
The band kicks things off in fine form with lead track and single “Lonesome Street,” a throwback that’s as close to “classic Blur” as you can get. But it doesn’t seem as if the band is cannibalizing their past so much as getting back into a familiar groove and remembering what made their best singles work. “There Are Too Many of Us” recalls the band’s later work, which it makes it a more enjoyable, yet somewhat bittersweet experience. It’s hard not to hear some moments like this and “New World Towers”–easily the strongest track here–and wonder how the band would have evolved if internal fighting and Coxon’s departure hadn’t gotten in the way.
The one thing that hasn’t changed in the past decade is that Blur is best taken as a song-by-song band, and The Magic Whip is a stark reminder of this. Most of the album consists of half-baked experiments and songs that rely on texture and atmosphere more than melody or composition. Tracks like “Ice Cream Man” and “Thought I Was A Spaceman” sound like daydreams that stop before they’re finished. For a grand return from one of Britain’s most beloved bands, you’d think that The Magic Whip would present a more assertive Blur. Instead, they just seem to meander through their songs until they get to the next one.
There are a handful of good songs on The Magic Whip, just as there are a handful of good songs on every Blur album. Blur are still capable of writing truly great music; their 2012 single “Under the Westway” was one of the best things that they’ve ever done. But the new album fails to deliver on that promise, and I’m still scratching my head as to why they bothered. It sounds like the band may be asking themselves the same question.