BLUR: THE MAGIC WHIP (2015)
1) Lonesome Street; 2) New World Towers; 3) Go Out; 4) Ice Cream Man; 5) Thought I Was A Spaceman; 6) I Broadcast; 7) My Terracotta Heart; 8) There Are Too Many Of Us; 9) Ghost Ship; 10) Pyongyang; 11) Ong Ong; 12) Mirrorball.
Okay. Hold your breath no longer. Blur have come back — with a «comeback» album. Who said miracles are bound to happen? They aren't. Most comeback albums are just that — «comeback albums», defined as «collections of songs produced when former bandmates come together for the sake of old times, fans, and money, without anything particularly fresh to say». This does not necessarily mean that the music is bad — it only means that the music does not let you discover anything new about the musicians, and that there was no reason whatsoever to wait for this to happen with one's fingers crossed.
At least Think Tank was Damon Albarn's noble-treacherous attempts to turn «Blur» into «The Trendy Damon Albarn Experience». Failing that, Damon Albarn went on to churn out trendy experiences all by himself. Now that he got a bit bored with that, too, Blur come together once more, in all the glory of their classic lineup — but no, they do not continue their journey from the stage where we last saw them with 13. That journey was long since terminated. Instead, what we see them do is deliver a «Certified Blur Album». Along the well-known lines of: «If you loved Modern Life Is Rubbish / Parklife / Great Escape / Blur, you'll like this». And if you do not, how can you call yourself a Blur fan, you silly person you?
I mean, just listen to that opening of ʽLonesome Streetʼ. Street noises, okay. Brief jazz guitar intro, okay. A rollickin' acoustic arpeggio, all right. But as soon as the entire band kicks in at 0:15 into the song, there's absolutely no mistaking that this is the Blur — the Blur of the early classic Brit-pop era. Gosh, those chords, I mean, you could feed the songs off Modern Life Is Rubbish inside a computer and it would spit out ʽLonesome Streetʼ for you. The only difference is that, unfortunately, ʽLonesome Streetʼ is completely uncatchy, which raises my suspicions even further — maybe they have been working on Blur-software all this time?
Admittedly, the opening number is not indicative of the entire album. And truth be told, The Magic Whip on the whole does not produce the impression that it was simply written as «yet another Blur album». No and no — on the contrary, the main flaw of this record is that it tries too hard (and ultimately fails, I'd say) to make a big statement, one that goes way beyond pure music and, because of that, does not pay that much attention to music. The record is well produced and, on the surface, looks complex and carefully detailed, but that is mainly technological: for instance, there is a lot of electronic overdubs, reflecting Albarn's digital fetish of the past fifteen years, yet somehow, they all feel a little... «autopilotish», if you get my drift.
Instead of writing awesome songs, what Albarn tries to do here is write songs that make big claims. Songs with titles like ʽThere Are Too Many Of Usʼ — that one, I think, would be particularly embarrassing to perform in public, yet they do it and the public does not care, even if lines like "There are too many of us / That's plain to see / And we all believe in praying / For our immortality" could easily be construed as offensive to seven billion people, even if they may be somewhat true (but isn't truth offensive?). Songs about lonesome loneliness of the lonely loner: ʽLonesome Streetʼ, ʽThought I Was A Spacemanʼ. Songs about alienation, songs about love lost, songs of disillusionment, songs of misanthropy, and even a song called ʽPyongyangʼ, and guess what, it ain't a celebratory anthem in honor of The Great Leader. Rather, it is a song sung from the point of view of the deceased Great Leaders, and... they're lonely too, in a way.
All in all, you know now: The Magic Whip, from top to bottom, is an album about loneliness. Okay, so that could be a continuation of 13, much of which was about loneliness, too. But 13 was a much more psychedelic, and a much less serious experience — Whip, in comparison, is like a musical thesis from a mature half-poet, half-sociologist. And, by the way, where is Coxon in all of that? I have no idea. The songs are all credited to all the members of the band, in a fit of democratic generosity, but Graham almost never sings, except a couple co-lead vocal parts, and his playing is very restricted: guitar solos are now presumably considered tasteless, and guitar riffs way too often seem to be there only to ensure that «Blur sound».
And so that's that: on one hand, the album is a «mature» musical treatise on how uncomfortable it feels to be alive in 2015, and on the other hand — it is an unconscious throwback to the hip and cocky days of 1993-99. ʽLonesome Streetʼ, ʽGo Outʼ, and ʽOng Ongʼ sound like they belong on Parklife; ʽNew World Towersʼ and ʽMy Terracotta Heartʼ are melancholic darknesses that sound like they belong on Great Escape; ʽI Broadcastʼ is a noisefest that could belong on Blur; and ʽThought I Was A Spacemanʼ and ʽPyongyangʼ are ghostly whisps that could be on 13. Well, something like that. But when you put them all together and extract the common invariant, it's all about the good man feeling bad and wanting to be somewhere else, or with someone else. It might be too much, perhaps, to state that Albarn is feeling like Kim Il-sun in his glass coffin, but hey, it's not my fault if he makes that kind of music.
The good news is that eventually, slowly, very slowly the songs might begin to pull you in. They are serious and they are intelligent, and if a band that was among the best of their ilk in the 1990s comes back together fifteen years later and decides to make a serious, intelligent album, well, it is not very likely that they will create a complete dump. The gloomy atmosphere is real, the lyrics are good, and there's plenty of juicy little details — well, like that little morose riff that Graham is playing in between the verses of ʽNew World Towersʼ, or like the funereal approach to surf guitar on the closing ʽMirrorballʼ.
The bad news is that, well, I dunno about you, but there are certain types of albums I wouldn't want to expect from certain types of bands, and as much as I acknowledge Blur's right to sound somber and pessimistic every now and then, I don't want a Blur album that just sounds like one big dirge, because Damon Albarn ain't no frickin' Robert Smith, much less a goddamn Nick Cave. The same guy who literally spent decades partying in and out of every trendy party in the UK and worldwide is now teaching us all a lesson in loneliness, reclusiveness, and misanthropy? Come on now, this just doesn't feel right. Ten minutes into the album, I just get this urge to tell the guy to cheer up, already — this all begins bordering on emo, if not Goth, and this is not what we needed Blur to reunite for. It ain't bad, but it doesn't quite sound right, either.
I do give the album a thumbs up. It is a slow grower, and it will eventually grow some more on me, I guess, though not that much more. And compared to some other «comebacks», this one at least tries to make some points, rather than just sound like an inefficient imitation of past glories. But ultimately, it is an inefficient imitation of past glories, and that casts an unlucky shadow on all the points it tries to make, and this is why I seriously doubt that The Magic Whip will ever be in many people's «top five», let alone «top three» Blur albums.
And oh yeah, by the way, what's up with the Chinese title? I know they recorded most of it in Hong Kong, but it's not as if there was any Chinese influence in the songs themselves — are we supposed to pat the Damon on the back for letting us know about his adoration of traditional Chinese characters? Or are they trying to boost sales in China? Oh well, at least now everybody knows that Blur is Mohu in Chinese. They probably used Google Translate anyway. It's not as if it were an album that offered particularly complex solutions to complex problems.