Blur's comeback album "The Magic Whip" (Warner Bros./Parlophone) is about as unexpected as they come.
The tracks were recorded in 2013, during jam sessions on a tour break in Hong Kong and then set aside when the tour resumed. At first, singer Damon Albarn, now better known as half of the Gorillaz creative team and as a worldbeat solo artist, was underwhelmed with the sessions, but guitarist Graham Coxon saw promise in their work with bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree. Coxon and producer Stephen Street shaped and polished the tracks to a point that Albarn found new inspiration for a pile of impressive lyrics.
The result is an album that feels influenced by Blur in its heyday, while still looking ahead to the future.
"I Broadcast" is a good example of the mix, with its bleepy-bloopy synth opening that dissolves into spiky rock and a punk-pop chorus that is reminiscent of "Song 2." The single "Go Out" takes the storytelling of classic "Parklife"-era Blur and adds more of a current edge, without losing the sing-along, soon-to-be pub chant, "Go to the lo-oh-oh-oh-ocal." On "Ong Ong," Albarn somehow merges Asian images and '70s classic rock, crafting an undeniable melody that would work anywhere from country radio to Coachella.
Albarn's more recent interest in world issues hasn't been lost, though. His Bowiesque delivery on "There Are Too Many of Us" gives the issue of population control a stylish anthem that isn't lacking in gravitas. On "Pyongyang," he sings from the point of view of a North Korean political prisoner.
"Ghost Ship" shows Blur at its most inventive, laying a bit of Hong Kong travelogue on top of an island-tinged musical backdrop fueled by Coxon's sunny guitar. "I had to get away for a little while," Albarn explains. "But then I came back much harder."
Ain't that the truth.
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"The Magic Whip"
THE GRADE A-
BOTTOM LINE Woohoo! Blur returns after 12 years