Fans of Britpop pioneers Blur had reason to celebrate on 19 February, as the group announced details of their first album in 12 years, entitled The Magic Whip.
Describing the follow-up to 2003’s Think Tank as a return to “the way we recorded when we started,” Damon Albarn said that the album was similar in style to the music David Bowie made during his mid 70’s Berlin period.
Initially conceived in Hong Kong, during downtime following a cancelled show in Japan, the band spent five days laying down ideas. It wasn’t until Graham Coxon reprised these sessions and presented them to long-time producer Stephen Street, who went on to develop them with the guitarist, that they realised they might have material worthy of a new album.
“They did some editing and some production work and sent around the initial tracks and we all realised we’d done something quite special there,” said drummer Dave Rowntree. “There was 18 months [in-between recording the songs] which allowed us to have a bit of perspective on it. When they played it back, that was the time everyone got very excited.”
The band made their announcement at a hastily arranged press conference in a Chinese restaurant in London, hosted by Zane Lowe, which was also live-streamed on Facebook. Until this point, Albarn admitted that the band had gone as far as they could go without returning to the studio: “I really felt at the end of the last gigs that that was it - there was no way we could do another gig without an another album.”
Since the album’s completion last year, the band have kept information about the new record under wraps. “We had a blood pact between us about who we were allowed to tell and who we weren’t so I’ve had to do a lot of catch up phone calling today!” said Rowntree. “A fair few angry people going ‘Why wasn’t I in the circle of trust!”
The songs featured on The Magic Whip were influenced by their surroundings in Hong Kong. “There’s nothing pastoral about it - it’s very urban,” said Albarn. “It wasn’t a flash studio, it was pretty claustrophobic and hot. We went in and knocked about loads of ideas.”
One track, Ong Ong, was described by bassist Alex James as a “banger”, while another is said to describe Albarn’s thoughts on North Korea. “It’s my impression of the place, in an abstract, veiled way,” he said.
In support of the album, Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree also announced that they will headline this year’s British Summer Time in Hyde Park on 20 June, the fourth time they have played there.
While Think Tank, the band’s seventh album, remains the last under the Blur banner, Coxon was absent for the majority of its recording process: the guitarist only features on one song, its melancholic closer, Battery in Your Leg. The Magic Whip marks their first proper full-length as a quartet since 1999’s 13.
In the intervening years, the group have reformed for a number of major live shows: they headlined Hyde Park and Glastonbury in 2009, not to mention the London Olympics closing concert in 2012. So far, fans have only been privy to two new tracks since their reformation: the one-off single Under the Westway/The Puritan, in 2012.
In the meantime, Albarn has been busy with numerous projects – albums with Gorillaz, the Good the Bad & the Queen and Rocket Juice & the Moon; two operas, Monkey and Dr Dee; his continuing work with Africa Express; guest appearances on albums by Massive Attack and Tony Allen, and production for the late Bobby Womack; not to mention his Mercury-nominated solo album, Everyday Robots, in 2014.
Coxon, meanwhile, released his eighth solo album, A+E, in 2012, Rowntree pursues political endeavours, and cheese-maker James’s culinary adventures have even extended to a fizzy drink franchise.
Albarn first hinted that there might be an eighth Blur album in 2013, following the cancelled Japan shows. “The opportunity came and we took it,” James told Bang Showbiz. “We were just jamming, but it was good.”
The frontman’s jam-packed schedule has often been held responsible for impeding the band’s musical progress: in 2012, William Orbit claimed that Albarn pulled the plug on a set of “amazing” recording sessions. “Damon, brilliant and talented tho he is, is kinda a shit to the rest of Blur,” he wrote.
Having formed at London’s Goldsmiths College in the late 80s, Blur’s debut album, Leisure, was released in 1991. Famous for pioneering the Britpop movement, the band went on to challenge their northern rivals, Oasis, in 1995 when the bands released singles at the same time: Blur’s Country House outsold the Oasis’s Roll With It by 274,000 to 216,000. “Blur won the battle, Oasis won the war, then Blur went on to win the whole campaign,” bassist James once said. What with suggestions that Oasis might one day re-form, perhaps the fight isn’t quite over just yet.
The Magic Whip will be released on 27 April. The full tracklist is as follows:
New World Towers
Ice Cream Man
Thought I Was A Spaceman
My Terracotta Heart
There Are Too Many Of Us