That Blur’s first studio album in 12 years saw the light of day is something of a minor miracle: The initial sessions for the full-length—which is also the group’s first record consistently featuring guitarist Graham Coxon since 1999’s 13—occurred in Hong Kong in mid-2013, and did nothing but gather dust until late 2014, when Coxon and producer Stephen Street started noodling on the music again and the band subsequently polished the results.
In its brighter moments, The Magic Whip feels like a sparser take on Blur’s late-’90s guitar rock, and a not-so-distant cousin to Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Most tunes are marked by laconic guitar frizz and spare, crisp percussion, while songs such as “Ice Cream Man” and “Thought I Was A Spaceman” have a moody underbelly marked by simmering, quirky electronic programming. The most successful examples of this combination are “Pyongyang,” which meshes flying-saucer keyboards and riffs inspired by film-noir intrigue, and the staticky single “Go Out.”
But because The Magic Whip was shaped via bursts of creativity, it doesn’t feel labored-over, which is both its strength and its weakness. Musically, the record possesses a loose vibe unburdened by expectations or commercial sensibilities. Only the snappy, harmony-laden Britpop echo “Lonesome Street” and noisy, synth-zapped highlight “I Broadcast” recall Blur’s poppy heyday. Yet the band sometimes sounds so relaxed, the album’s music plods along lifelessly—as on the Jack Johnson-esque “Ghost Ship” (whose dominant characteristic is breezy, tropical-sounding acoustic guitars) and the sleepy-eyed, Wild-West-tinged “Mirrorball,” which ends the album on a dour note.
Thematically, The Magic Whip is equally bleak, mixing pointed political commentary and healthy doses of cultural skepticism with laments that the modern world aids and abets isolation and loneliness. Damon Albarn’s fragmented songwriting on the album can be frustratingly obtuse, as his vague lyrics often feel like draft sketches rather than coherent criticism. Unsurprisingly, this approach is most successful when used to exacerbate the album’s ominous musical atmospheres, especially on highlight “There Are Too Many Of Us,” inspired by a 2014 Sydney, Australia hostage situation; the song’s marching-army drums and clipped orchestras mirror the dread and disorientation portrayed in the lyrics.
It’s a testament to the band’s intangible chemistry that The Magic Whip doesn’t feel like an Albarn (or a Coxon) solo effort; the album sounds like a Blur record. And despite its flaws, this new music is insidiously catchy, with plenty of unorthodox hooks that linger after the record ends. The key to embracing Blur in 2015 is remembering it’s not the fresh-faced Britpop band with dreams of arch world domination, but a group who convene when they feel they have something to say and musical ideas worthy of sharing. In that respect, The Magic Whip is more successful than not.