The British quartet’s first album with its original members in 16 years was just released to a score of “universal acclaim” on the Metacritic website, which compiles critical reaction. The Magic Whip debuted at No. 1 back home, where Blur and Oasis duked it out as the top bands of the 1990s.
Yet it was birthed in an atmosphere of ambivalence, if not downright trepidation, particularly on the part of frontman Damon Albarn.
“The story of this record can be compared to a middle-aged couple, out of the blue, receiving the news that there was going to be a new baby, after the original children had grown up,” Albarn said. “We had no intention of having another kid and then suddenly, almost miraculously, one appeared.”
Blur didn’t break up following its 2003 album Think Tank, recorded without founding guitarist Graham Coxon, but didn’t stay together, either. Albarn moved on to great success – more than Blur ever had in the U.S. – with his cartoon band Gorillaz. His old band reconvened for occasional live shows starting in 2009 after meeting to thrash out personal issues, among them Albarn’s resentment at having to do too much to keep things going.
There were no plans for recording new music, until a canceled gig two years ago left Blur stuck in Hong Kong for five days with nothing to do.
They booked time in a small studio, commuting together each day on public transportation. They didn’t record actual songs, just a series of jam sessions based on a few musical ideas. Albarn put it out of mind when he returned home.
More than a year later, Coxon and the band’s longtime producer, Stephen Street, went to work on the tapes, trying to form them into pop songs so Albarn would be intrigued enough to put lyrics to them.
“I wanted him to be drawn in,” Coxon said. “I wanted to hook him. By the time this was getting into shape, I was really loving the album and I didn’t want it to go nowhere. So I had to leave these juicy carrots in there for him to bite and want to go with it.”
Albarn describes his reaction upon hearing what Coxon and Street had done with several expletives. Not because it was bad. Quite the opposite. But creatively speaking, he’d already put Blur in his rear-view mirror and was leery of the work involved in cranking up the machinery of a big-time rock band.
“Graham is very much instrumental in this,” Albarn said. “In a way, it’s his baby, although I suppose I am part of its miraculous conception. The reason why I’m so excited about it and happy about it is that the responsibilities were being shared for the first time in maybe 20 years and that’s really important.”
The disc mixes straightforward pop tunes like “Go Out” and “Ong Ong” with more experimental fare like “Thought I Was a Spaceman.” Lyrically, there are echoes of the strangers-in-a-strange-land feeling Blur had in Hong Kong.
Where this leaves Blur is an open question. Albarn and Coxon both established their own music during the time off from Blur, although Albarn remained more in the public eye. Neither bass player Alex James nor drummer Dave Rowntree sat idle – James is a journalist and a cheesemaker, and Rowntree a lawyer.
Albarn is consumed with writing a musical in London, facing a tight deadline, and it’s not clear whether Blur will be doing many tour dates to support The Magic Whip. Albarn, who released his first solo album last year, foresees a Neil Young-like career for himself where he works on different projects with different people.
“I am terminally promiscuous,” he jokes.
Considering they’ve known each other since they were pre-teens, Albarn (now 47) and Coxon (46) learned new things through The Magic Whip about their respective strengths. Albarn enjoys the spark of creativity while Coxon, more of a mechanic, likes the follow-through.
“It’s weird that we’re between 45 and 50 and we’re only just realizing the potential of our relationship musically,” Coxon said. “This process has shown us a lot more than I ever thought it would, what we like about each other and what we both enjoy about the music that we make together … If we had done this 20 years ago, it would have been a lot easier.”