Blur, "The Magic Whip" (Warner Bros)
Blur were Britpop flag-bearers of the 1990s, waging a media-driven battle with Oasis for the musical soul of Cool Britannia.
Since that distant era, the band's members have traded the laddish attitude and Mockney inflections of hits like "Parklife" for remarkably varied pursuits. Bassist Alex James is — rock 'n' roll! — a successful cheesemaker, drummer Dave Rowntree is a lawyer, and singer Damon Albarn's musical career has taken in everything from dub to West African music to opera.
Blur's first album as a foursome for 16 years — the result of time spent together in a Hong Kong studio in 2013 — finds them older and perhaps wearier, but still full of creative brio.
Produced by longtime Blur collaborator Stephen Street, the album is a characteristic mix of the global and the parochial. "Lonesome Street," one of the standout tracks, is distinctly Kinks-y in its vocal harmonies and references to London buses and suburban trains. It's more evidence that Albarn is something of a lyrical heir to Kinks songwriter Ray Davies.
"The Magic Whip" is infused with Albarn's wanderlust and penchant for bittersweet reflection. "We were more like brothers, but that was years ago," he sings on "My Terracotta Heart."
The album mixes that melancholy strain with Graham Coxon's passionate and versatile guitar and the sinuous — even funky — rhythm section of Rowntree and James, then adds all manner of electronic blips and production playfulness.
"The Magic Whip" won't win over listeners who find Albarn's languid vocal style mannered. But on tracks like world-weary "New World Towers," punky "I Broadcast" — which has the adrenaline of Blur classic "Song 2" — and cathartically upbeat closer "Ong Ong," Blur show they can still charm and delight.
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