Blur is like a shark – the band need to keep moving to stay alive. The seven albums the British group released between 1991 and 2003 were each more inventive and iconoclastic than the last. And when they had nothing new left to say, they simply stopped.
Then all of sudden, this year Blur were back, with fresh ideas on a new album. Arriving after 12 years of silence, The Magic Whip signalled the quartet's belated return to relevance.
While one-time arch-rivals Oasis peaked after only two albums, Blur evolved creatively until the bitter end, every fresh release refining the band’s sensibilities and expanding their musical horizons.
The Magic Whip does not quite continue this tradition – it’s nowhere near as brazenly experimental as their later-era albums, such as 1999’s 13 or 2003’s Think Tank – but it does feel like a progression of sorts, or certainly a solidification. Taking cues from the band’s early indie-pop sensibilities and their later art-rock introspection, The Magic Whip is, with songs that bounce, growl and contemplate, exactly the kind of album you’d want Blur to be making in 2015.
More than anything, it is simply a welcome surprise. The out-of-the-blue release – triggered by some haphazard Hong Kong sessions while stranded due to a cancelled gig – arrived six years after the quartet’s first, money-grabbing live reunion, long after listeners had given up all hope of new music.
Not that fans were complaining – most were just happy to have Blur back at all. A state of national euphoria greeted the news, in 2009, that Blur had regrouped to headline Glastonbury and play two sell-out shows in London’s Hyde Park. It all had the air of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I just can’t do it anymore,” frontman Damon Albarn told the UK’s Q magazine at the time.
When Blur returned to Hyde Park in 2012, to close the London Olympics, Albarn again signalled that this could be the band’s swansong. So by the time the band performed a third show at the same royal park this summer, it was easy to feel a little exploited, emotionally and financially. But at least they had some new songs to sing this time around.
Which is why this year is a pretty good time to see Blur. In fact, it is probably the best time since 1999, the last time the band toured with Graham Coxon in the line-up. He was edged out after entering rehab on the day sessions began for 2003’s Think Tank.
It was a potently toxic departure – the guitarist cofounded Blur with childhood friend Albarn in 1988 after the pair met bassist Alex James at London’s Goldsmiths College, where they were all students (drummer Dave Rowntree was, at the time, a computer programmer for Colchester Borough Council).
While their 1991 debut album Leisure was drearily derivative of the declining baggy, “Madchester” sound, it was a conscious rebuke of the post-Nirvana invasion of American grunge which gave Blur their zeitgeist. Albarn wrote a distinctly irony-stoked British sound with a poise that would drive the defining “Life trilogy” of Modern Life is Rubbish (1993), Parklife (1994) and The Great Escape (1995), and create generational anthems out of singles Girls and Boys and Parklife.
However, by the time of 1995’s “Battle of Britpop” – which saw Blur’s Country House beat Oasis’s Roll With It to the number one spot in the UK charts after Albarn moved their single’s release date to create a showdown. Battle won, war lost.
Blur redeemed themselves by shedding their patented Britpop wit. They followed Coxon’s muse and Albarn’s ego down a navel-gazing rabbit hole for a reinvention that spawned 1997’s self-titled album Blur – complete with noise-rock staples Beetlebum and Song 2 – and culminated in 1999’s sonic career-high 13.
Today the band continue to straddle these two split personalities – early laddish Britpop and latter-day US-influenced alt-rock are artfully balanced on contemporary setlists.
Which brings us back to The Magic Whip, a record which, for the first time, knowingly reconciles these two opposing halves into a cohesive whole. Whatever the ever-dramatic Albarn claims, let’s hope this one won’t be their last. I wouldn’t count on it.
• Blur perform at du Arena on Sunday at the fourth and final F1 after-race concert. Doors open at 7pm. A three-day race-day pass that includes entry to the show (as well as the Arab all-star, Enrique Iglesias and Florence and The Machine concerts tomorrow, Friday and Saturday) costs from Dh2,080. For more ticket options, visit www.yasmarinacircuit.com