Music Reviews
The Magic Whip

Blur The Magic Whip

(Warner Bros./Parlophone) Rating - 7/10

The stories of band breakups have always trickled down through the press and into the realm of music history. Nothing is more indicative of human nature than reading about a clash of egos in the midst of struggle, desperately forging disparate attitudes into something resembling an album. When Dinosaur Jr. broke up in 1989, things got messy. J Mascis, legendary guitar player and frontman, was dead set on dictating percussion to drummer Emmet “Murph,” and expressing silent animosity towards creative force Lou Barlow. Eventually, the two dropped Barlow right before embarking on an Australian tour, never reaching their previous foothold of critical acclaim again until their reunion in 2007. Graham Coxon, lead guitarist of Blur, was asked to leave the band under similar circumstances, but with comparatively ambiguous results. Without the crutch of Coxon’s Telecaster, Albarn managed to successfully navigate Blur into their most ambitiously crestfallen album to date, Think Tank, and stake a claim in the American mainstream with the conceptual group Gorillaz. So it is perhaps unsurprising that their reunion album, titled The Magic Whip, is not necessarily the return to form that Dinosaur Jr’s Beyond was.

Admittedly, artistic achievement can inflate expectation for musicians of Blur’s caliber. In 2010, Damon Albarn had seemingly reached the pinnacle of his solo career with Plastic Beach, a cornucopia of collaborative contributions from a diverse range of artists; some of which faltered (Snoop Dogg’s spoken-word ramblings) but otherwise largely succeeded (Womack’s soulful delivery in Stylo; a chopped-and-spliced vocal delivery by Lou Reed in Some Kind of Nature). But now, as it stands, Blur still have much to prove to the British public — even if it has only been five years since the last Gorillaz album, and twelve years since their last effort, Think Tank. A serviceable performance on the Graham Norton Show of their third single, Lonesome Street, led to an ageist mass of unwarranted twitter criticism, much of it directed toward Albarn’s five o’clock shadow and ungainly appearance. Outside of physical appearance, the select few cried foul at the music itself. Even if much of this publicity has been over-dramatized, with every exaggeration there remains a slight inkling of truth.

The veracity is, of course, somewhere in the middle. The band has reached a point in which they are content with making music in pure “Blur” fashion, even if that calls for the occasional self-referential nod. Not that Blur aspire to mirror their glory days — leave that method of writing of songwriting to Pink Floyd and The Eagles — but Albarn and Coxon occasionally pull a few previously played cards out of their collective deck.

In spite of this, there are moments on the latter half of The Magic Whip that expand their experimental periphery in the same manner that 13 did. The slow murmur of guitar swells that introduce Thought I Was A Spaceman open up with vivid grandeur under Rowntree’s crisp hi-hat clasps, while twinkling keyboard melodies hang in the far off distance as if to anchor the solemn atmosphere of the song. The minor-key march of There Are Too Many of Us somehow manages to avoid theatrical bombast despite the gravity of Albarn’s geopolitical lyricism. Through his trademark vocal filter, Albarn croons: “We pose this question to our children / It leads them out to stray / And live in tiny houses / Of the same mistakes we make.” It comes across as a well-intentioned warning rather than personal agenda.

Good intentions aren’t enough to get the band by on other tracks. As catchy and energetic as opener Lonesome Street insists on being, the familiar guitar crunch of each verse reeks of Parklife’s harder hitting moments. My Terracotta Heart takes a slithery arpeggio and sauntering groove and stomps all over it with an uninspired chord progression for a chorus and little dynamic evolution. I Broadcast, while flaunting an infectious vocal melody, retreads ground already explored on tracks like Crazy Beat and I Don’t Wanna Go Out, the latter residing on Coxon’s own solo effort, Love Travels at Illegal Speeds.

Even with its faults, The Magic Whip is remarkably cohesive; not a single track is superfluous, flippant, or jarring. While Blur may not have the perceptible onerousness for each other that they did fifteen years ago, they certainly have the zeal. Coxon and Albarn sound as lively as they ever did; the time apart has certainly renewed their spirits and affability. However, the strife between artistic pairings can often amplify the aptitude of each individual; out of great conflict, masterpieces such as Bowie’s Berlin trilogy or The Beatles’ Abbey Road have arisen. Now that the members of Blur have found comfort in each other again, maybe it’s time they make themselves a bit uneasy in the studio.