Blur – The Magic Whip

So what should one expect from a reunited Blur some 20 odd years after the mid-90s Britpop boom? The Blur versus Oasis feud is a distant (but still funny) memory; guitarist Graham Coxon has come and gone and come back again, bassist Alex James (you know, the cute one with that sassy, swoosh haircut) has hosted a BBC documentary about the South American drug trade where he claimed to have done a million dollars (or pounds or whatever) worth of cocaine in the ’90s (all of this, of course, is behind him now – nudge, wink), and singer Damon Albarn has released a stack of sleepy, understated and uniformly inoffensive electropop albums on his own. Woo hoo!

The members of Blur are in their mid-to-late 40s now. They’re nowhere nearly as cuddly and “shaggable” as they were in the ’90s – as none of us are. (Granted, there is an ever-shrinking number of Stomp and Stammer readers who were so young in the ’90s, they hadn’t reached the age of shaggability. You folks are probably imminently shaggable now: So commence the shagging, ye fucking shaggers – with protection, of course. I digress.) And with the exception of a couple of memorable singles that were kinda/sorta alternative radio “hits,” Blur never made much of a dent stateside.

Lest we forget, I’ll throw down a few reminders here. Commercial success doesn’t necessarily equate with quality. As you’ll recall, the “alternative” airwaves of the American 1990s were cluttered with third-wave grunge crap such as Candlebox, Everclear and Bush. And as bad as such commercial grunge simulacra may have been, it beat the hell out of the meat-headed nu? metal that emerged to dominate the charts in the second half of the decade. Ugh. Yeah, the American ’90s got off to a good start with the Nirvana, but the decade didn’t end up being a rock renaissance era after all.

Britpop, on the other hand, was for the most part good-to-great. Pulp were sassy, and smart and downright mean. Travis had the sincerity and songwriting thing nailed. The Verve were angelic and ethereal – yet dark and twisted at the same time. And Oasis, well, those guys had excellent taste in plagiarism. The Gallagher brothers were so shamelessly loaded and stupidly cocksure, you couldn’t help but begrudgingly love them too.

Britpop wasn’t heavy, but it really rocked. The guitars rang loudly. There were memorable melodies. The singers were sexy. And the bands were really famous – which means they were rock stars.

So Britpop was pretty much the last gasp of credible pop/rock music to succeed on a mega-scale – in Europe, at least. Britpop was probably just too good to go over wholesale in the U.S.

Blur, or course, were atop the Britpop heap. They had a lot of hits – many of which will come to mind if you just jostle your memory a bit. Remember “Parklife,” “Beetlebum,” “Girls and Boys” and the so-catchy-it’ll-stick-in-your-craw-even-if you-hate-it “Song 2?” (That’s the “woo-hoo” song, FYI.)  The rest of Blur’s back catalog has stood the test of time as well. The band was a kind of ’90s Kinks – knocking out catchy riffs and making wry observations of English life in a way that was (aargh) “too British” to go over in the States.

So Blur continued on into the new millennium, veering further away from rock and into electropop pastiche as the band became an oligarchy more and more dominated by lone auteur Damon Albarn. Then they kind of disappeared in 2003.

Of course, no band is ever really over. Since 2008 Blur have regrouped every now and again to play big European festivals and reap filthy lucre – and who could blame them?

Fast-forward to 2015; Albarn & Co. have finally reconvened in the recording studio to grace the planet with another long-player called The Magic Whip. And this leads us to the existential question that inevitably dogs all reunited bands: Why bother?

The Magic Whip starts off strongly with “Lonesome Street,” a crunchy/snappy tune that is basically Blur-by-numbers. This is exactly what most people want from this band: crunch + sass + a hint of twee = X. The song is a conscious attempt to recreate the Parklife era. Good enough. The track by no means reaches the glory of the olde days, but who cares? We all know that every band has a window of just a couple of years to (at best) a decade when everything syncs up just right, and from then on it’s downhill all the way. Just good enough is the best we can expect from Blur at this point. And “Lonesome Street” is good enough.

Song two, “New World Towers,” should be the track where the album locks in and gains momentum. Instead, we’re offered pleasant-enough neo-wave Muzak and the musings of a comfortable, moderately wealthy Englishman. Song three, “Go Out” is more of the same. Song four, “Ice Cream Man” is more of the same. Song five, “Thought I was a Spaceman,” is more of the same. And so it goes, all the way to the end.

I keep waiting for something, anything, to add a little bit of excitement that never materializes. The Magic Whip is never bad per se, it’s just never that good.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a high degree of craftsmanship in Blur’s pop product. Sonically, the album is pristine and flawless. Most of the music would work excellently in commercials for cell phones because, hey, it’s pleasant, tasteful, innocuous, urbane and, uh, modern. There’s a lot to like on The Magic Whip, but little to love. Eleven of the album’s 12 tracks seem like competent segues – none of them leading anywhere to speak of.

The Magic Whip
[Warner Bros./Parlophone]