Early in the jarring opening pages of science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury’s 1953 masterpiece Fahrenheit 451, the author appears to catch a glimmer of the actual future. Protagonist Guy Montag comes home from work to find his wife limp and dying of an overdose on sleeping pills. Montag calls for assistance and hangs back helplessly as paramedics revive her, thinking to himself, “There are too many of us. There are billions of us and that’s too many. Nobody knows anyone.” Could Bradbury have foreseen the quiet anomie of faces bathed in smartphone light, shuttling through overcrowded cities, alone together in only tangential acknowledgement of one other’s humanity? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Singer-songwriter Damon Albarn invokes Bradbury’s sentiment on “There Are Too Many of Us”, the emotional centerpiece of The Magic Whip, the reunion album from his reconstituted flagship Blur, as he muses about an Australian hostage crisis he once spectated on television from a hotel room above it. “For a moment I was dislocated by terror on the loop elsewhere,” he admits in verse two—not horrified, just momentarily “dislocated”—as if to call into question our dwindling concern for people in places outside our cubicles of convenience. Technology has made our world smaller, but it hasn’t made us less isolated. Ease of access doesn’t equal closeness.
The Magic Whip is the first Blur album since 2003’s Think Tank, the first with guitarist Graham Coxon onboard since 1999’s 13 (Coxon was booted from the Think Tank sessions a week in and summarily quit), and the first with producer Stephen Street since 1997’s Blur. In 2013, a lucky twist of fate netted the group some downtime between festival dates in South China and Indonesia, and Blur holed up in a Hong Kong studio to workshop new material. Anyone who’s waited a decade and a half for Albarn and his songwriting foil to resume tussling over bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree’s lithe low end will find a lot to enjoy; something special happens when these four get in a room, and you can still hear some of it happening here.
The distant traveler’s conflicting sense of wonder and alienation is the running theme here. “New World Towers” gazes at the web of neon signs overhead in awe of their glow, “Go Out” details nights alone at the bar and defeated late-night self-love. On “Thought I Was a Spaceman” Albarn recasts a longing for the comforting familiarity of London as a space-wrecked astronaut’s homesickness. The Magic Whip was conceived as Albarn wrapped work on his 2014 solo album Everyday Robots, and it’s tempting to see its disaffected tourism as a sister to Robots’ shattered workaday ennui back home.
Sensibilities from Albarn’s extracurricular projects frequently bleed into the frame, especially the Gorillaz, which shows both in dubby, beat-oriented cuts like “New World Towers” and in the lyrics’ pervasive sense of Englishness-in-exile. “Thought I Was a Spaceman” could easily serve as a prequel to Demon Days’ post-apocalyptic opener “Last Living Souls” in sound and story, and “Ghost Ship” wouldn’t look out of place anchored off the shores of Plastic Beach. At times the sonic tug-of-war feels like Albarn clawing at the restrictions of a framework his ideas have outgrown.
In the moments when The Magic Whip is most interested in sounding like a Blur album, it is perhaps too interested. There’s a nod to nearly every epoch, from the synth-accented Parklife alt-rockisms of “I Broadcast” to the busy Great Escape pop of “Lonesome Street”, the Blur-ish guitar squall of “Go Out” and the winding 13-influenced electro-psych of “Spaceman”. Whip functions as a career travelogue in that sense; one wonders whether the decision to have Street, the band’s Britpop-era producer, helm the sessions hasn’t aroused a certain sense of nostalgia. Restless innovators deserve a cycle back through the worlds they’ve crafted here and there (see: the last decade worth of Prince and Beck) but it’s disorienting for a band as keenly interested in artistic recombination as Blur.
Sometimes the album veers into sleepy territory: The ambient washes and close mic’d, reverb-drenched strumming of “Spaceman” are welcome flourishes, as is the cluttered keyboard-and-acoustic bounce of “Ice Cream Man”, but both are better showcases for production than song structure. There’s also sluggish, saccharine adult contemporary on “My Terracotta Heart” and closer “Mirrorball”, though, momentum-killers in a back end that sometimes lags where it should lift. The tempo only picks up on “Lonesome Street”, “Go Out”, and “I Broadcast”; the rest of the album bobs calmly adrift. It suits the album’s geographical fixation on Hong Kong, Indonesia, and especially the beaches and waters in between, but not the band’s own sweet spot.
All these frustrations fall away when the quartet locks into its signature jangly strut, as it does on the late album highlight “Ong Ong”, a chugging rocker outfitted with a chorus of lilting la-la’s. Its sunny soul is infectious, as Albarn, who once lamented he had “no distance left to run,” professes a love no measure of forbidding space could quell. Coxon’s in the wings playing hokey luau guitar, zeroing in on Damon’s seafaring yearning and playing it up for yaks until he storms center stage as the song draws to a noisy close. Blur’s always been puckish in spirit, its greatest gift the identification and gleeful subversion of listener expectations, and in moments like these it re-emerges, untarnished by the passage of time.
Reviewed 7.0/10.0 via Pitchfork