On February 19th 2015 at around 12pm, I paid a casual visit to the little boys room in work, taking my smartphone with me, as is standard practice of course. I sat down, opened up Facebook and scrolled for a few seconds, only to see an article from NME, which was titled: “Are Blur Set To Announce A New Album Today?”
The article went on to say that one of the British Tabloids had posted an image that morning of a neon sign displaying an ice cream cone, with text that translated roughly from Mandarin as “Blur – Magic Whip.”
Now, my initial thoughts on this were something along the lines of, “This needs to be taken with a massive pinch of salt.” After all, Blur fans have been here before; in 2005 the band announced that they were releasing an EP towards the end of the year, which bass player Alex James boldly declared would make Foo Fighters “wet their pants.” The EP, as well as a fan club gig in December never came to pass. Then there were the singles sporadically released after the initial reunion at the end of 2008 with guitarist Graham Coxon finally returning after being largely absent from Blur’s 2003 album Think Tank. There was 2010’s Record Store Day offering, Fools Day and the double A-Side to coincide with their 2012 London Olympics celebration show Under the Westway/The Puritan. The latter single purportedly resulted in additional studio sessions with a possible view to recording an album, with William Orbit at the helm. Orbit had previously produced the considerably revered 1999 Blur album 13, so whispers of a new record with the likes of the producer of that album understandably had fans among the Blur community feverish with hope and excitement. Sadly, this too ended up falling apart. Blur said very little on the situation in the press, but Orbit, still evidently very much caustic on the situation, went so far as to say that Damon Albarn was “Kinda a shit to the rest of Blur” (sic). Any confusion among Blur fans was soon put to rest though; Orbit uploaded his version of Under the Westway to Soundcloud, and it spread like wildfire among message boards and blogs. In short, Orbit’s version of Westway was absolutely woeful.
Then there was the incident in early May 2013. At a concert that Blur were performing in Hong Kong, Damon Albarn excitedly announced that the band had spent a week in the city and decided it would be a good time to “Try and record another record.” Once again, hopes among Blur’s loyal fanbase were raised only to soon after be dashed yet again. Until February 19th…
But most importantly, what does the new Blur record sound sound like? Well, Blur tend to have both a very solid opening and closing song across most of their LPs. This album opens with a sound effect intended to represent the “swish of The Magic Whip” followed by some city street noise. Then Graham Coxon’s guitar begins with an ascending/descending scale riff, before Dave Rowntree’s drums and Alex James’ bass join in with Coxon’s crunchy guitar chords, as well as an ascending synth riff carrying the insanely, alluringly catchy groove along as Damon’s vocals start on the opening track, Lonesome Street. This is familiar territory. There’s no mistaking that kind of guitar playing. It sounds like Graham Coxon. But more than that, it sounds like Blur – and this is one of the best songs they have ever done. You can also hear echoes of El Mañana by Gorillaz on New World Towers, while the synths on I Broadcast are somewhat reminiscent of the brilliant nastiness of Murdoc and co’s DoYaThing. This is not to suggest that the band are repeating themselves here though; quite the opposite in fact. Thankfully, Blur still have that drive to try to reinvent and push themselves in some kind of new direction, for better (see 1997’s Blur album) or worse (see Orbit’s Westway). Elsewhere on the record, there’s the incredibly weird but gorgeous pop of Ice Cream Man (that synth loop is quite frankly insane, and the song is all the better for it). On the emotive end of things, there’s plenty to savour, with one highlight in particular being There Are Too Many of Us. Dave Rowntree’s military-esque marching drums, the violin keyboards and Damon Albarn’s moving lyrics making it one of the most enjoyable cuts on the LP. Ghost Ship is another revelation. A positively breathtaking song, whose chorus contains some of the best, gorgeous scenery/image provoking lyrics that Damon has ever written. Then there’s the noisy, even filthy guitars (yes, in a good way) and sparse popping bass riff on Go Out. The band themselves have said that such a nasty track never would have happened, had they not been holed up in a tiny, sweatbox of a studio thousands of miles from home.
The album isn’t exactly perfect, however. The final three songs are somewhat lacking, comparatively speaking. All three are perfectly solid tracks, particularly Pyongyang, but they don’t feel quite up there with the rest of the record. You’d file them more under pretty great, rather than amazing. As mentioned before, Blur albums tend to be book-ended with an excellent opener as well as a brilliant closer. Mirrorball is a fine song unto itself, but compared to the epic climax of Parklife’s This is a Low, or Blur’s Essex Dogs for instance, it feels somewhat lacklustre.
These minor criticisms aside, Blur have turned in one hell of a record. Time will tell just how great it actually is, but for now, it feels like it should sit comfortably within the top half of their now 8 studio albums, in terms of greatness. Whether or not this will be the last Blur album remains to be seen; by all accounts, not even the band themselves know what lies ahead for the future, beyond their current tour. If this is to be their last LP though, Blur have treated us to an absolutely exquisite swan song.