A lot of the blame is sure to fall on the shoulders of frontman Damon Albarn, and there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to prop that notion up. Albarn has, over the past couple of decades, spread himself remarkably thin between The Good, The Bad, And The Queen; one solo record and another in preparation; and his biggest success as ringleader of Gorillaz — even bigger than Blur had ever been. It’s not impossible to imagine him running into the studio after the band — comprised of Alex James, Dave Rowntree, and making his first full reappearance as bandmember since 13 (1999), Graham Coxon — have cut the backing tracks, tossing off some stream of consciousness ideas and repetitions, and then bolting for the door for sessions elsewhere.
It’s not impossible, but it’s also not fair. If we are to say that the songs represent a sideways retrospective of things the band has done before, and better, that deja vu has to have been fostered by all members.
There are moments, however, when Albarn does seem to be stepping in the hole a little deeper than the rest. This is most evident on one of the album’s biggest rock moments, on the song “I Broadcast.” The lyrics don’t grab. Afterward, one tends to see that kind of workmanlike behavior found on all parts, not just the most up-front one. A sense of inventive playfulness that pervaded the best of Blur’s efforts is replaced by a sense of obligation fulfillment. Plug in here, plug in there, let’s get it done, thanks and goodnight. There’s something to be said about playing for enjoyment, without having that hunger behind the work, that sometimes corrupting need to succeed. But it doesn’t feel like enjoyment is being had here. More pointedly it feels like recognition that Blur is an asset that requires a dust-off every now and then.
Fans will, I suspect, love The Magic Whip for the first couple of weeks and defend it against its detractors for that same period of time. After that, however, the record, CD, or file folder will probably go back into storage, supplanted in rotation by something else from the catalog. There’s nothing wildly wrong about it, but nothing universally right about it either, which is frustrating considering this was to be the big Coxon reunion effort. Instead, The Magic Whip is Blur’s effort to give the people what they want, no less, but also no more.