herald

Friday 9 December 2016

pop

It was during the recording of Think Tank in 2002 that guitarist Graham Coxon departed from Blur, the band that debuted with the baggy-era Leisure in 1991.

From an unsteady start, the band had lurched through the 90s creating a soundtrack that accompanied the visual art explosion of the Young British Artists, a generation that prompted collector Charles Saatchi to stage Sensation, a collection which had critic Brian Sewell fulminating: "Today, pickled sheep and soiled beds threaten to make barbarians of us all."

What that acerbic traditionalist made of Modern Life Is Rubbish, the album that signalled Blur's ambition to create work that spoke of their place and time, is unknown. That two of the band had been through Goldsmiths, the art college that was alma mater for a number of Britain's fearless YBAs, was no coincidence.

Blur made mistakes . But, unlike many of their fellow Brit Pop bands, they took risks and also made some formidable records.

Without their inventive guitarist, Blur lacked a limb. With frontman Damon Albarn pursuing individual projects such as Gorillaz and recording African artists, Blur ran out of steam.

Reunion gigs were warmly embraced. But the chemistry required for the strenuous sessions that might result in an album remained elusive. Until two years ago when, on tour, the band found themselves in Hong Kong with time on their hands. A number of doodles were recorded and shelved.

Late last year, Coxon took a stab at fleshing out the roughs. With producer Stephen Street in tow, the tracks took shape. Albarn got his lyrics pad out and, hey presto, we have 12 new songs, the first collection by the fully-functioning quartet for, I reckon, 16 years.

After all the angst, solo projects and cheese-making (yes, take a bow award-winning artisan cheesemonger and solid bass-player Alex James), the band have made an album that's both recognisably Blur and sonically sophisticated. Clever, poignant and witty, it provides excellent late-night listening and a quota of festival-stage rabble-rousers.

In some ways it feels like a souped-up companion piece to Albarn's Everyday Robots but from the dub-style rumble of James's bass (Ghost Ship) to the reckless shards of Coxon's guitar (Go Out) and the mix of electronic beats and Dave Rowntree's powerhouse kit-work (Thought I Was a Spaceman), this could only be Blur.

The bubbling Ice Cream Man feels like a cousin of Albarn's Mr Tembo. New World Towers paints an evocative picture of world weariness, a theme that runs through the album.

The message on the opening track, Lonesome Street, is, "This is the place to come to..." Quite right, too. HHHHI

The Magic Whip (Parlophone)

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