When the reunited Blur unexpectedly found themselves with five days free midway through an Asian tour, rather than chill out and go sightseeing, they opted to hole up in a tiny Hong Kong studio and jam, just to see what happened.
The immediate results were apparently not that promising; Damon Albarn, for one, doubted that much would come of them. Then Graham Coxon took it upon himself to organise the jams into semblances of songs, and after his and co-producer Stephen Street's tinkering, there was enough to spur Albarn's muse to add words to the tunes – though not until he'd briefly returned to the Orient to reacquaint himself with the ambience in which the music had been recorded.
Accordingly, the lyrics on The Magic Whip reflect the wan moods of a lonely, wandering outsider, decoupled from the daily round and stranded in the strange: a "pale ghost", to use the local slang term for Westerner, haunting an alien space. There are references to "Kowloon emptiness" and "junk-boat phantoms", the latter looming from the dubby, echoing smudges of sound that drift like mist across a harbour through "Thought I Was a Spaceman", which finds Albarn metaphorically "digging out my heart in some distant sand dune". The sense of apartness is more pronounced in the evocative "Pyongyang", a desultory dérive around "mausoleums… and public avenues" where the discordant charm of twang and whine evokes the chill alienation of an over-designed city and over-ordered culture. I have no idea if Albarn's ever visited North Korea, but it's an effective impression of monolithic stasis.
A similar sense of desultory drift is rather more warmly evoked in the drop-out lacunae punctuating the grungey riffing of "Lonesome Street", an engaged immersion in the hubbub of Hong Kong streetlife, where the "la-la-la" singalong recalls an earlier, cheerier Blur; it's even got whistling, so blithe is the mood. As a classic Blur indie-pop song, it's only bested here by the folksy charm of "Ong Ong", with its impassioned refrain "I wanna be with you" reflecting both the desire for home and hearth and the need to escape the oppressive urban sprawl. Again, the wordless backing-vocal chant lends personability, as it does too in "Go Out", a charging indie-rocker with Coxon's fingerprints all over it. Alongside Alex James's gulping bassline, Coxon's choppy guitar riff recalls the angular momentum of Pere Ubu, a comparison capped by the metallic stridency of his climactic skronk-guitar solo.
Architecture drives some of the songs, like "New World Towers", where warm organ, subtle drums and limpid guitar backdrop the buildings "...carved out of grey-white skies", its mood surely traceable to the dejected cityscapes of Albarn's offshoot project The Good, the Bad & the Queen. Elsewhere, in "There Are Too Many of Us", the sinister, forbidding march of strings carries Albarn's musings on mortality and humanity. "There are too many of us, in tiny houses here and there," he notes glumly, "all looking through the windows on everything we share" – the inclusive "us" a reminder that he, too, is one of those gazing out.
There's a substantial hangover from Albarn's recent Everyday Robots album, not least in the wistful simplicity and nostalgic appeal of "Ice Cream Man", a singalong childrens' song like a milder "Mr Tembo", celebrating the dispenser of "Magic Whip for the people in party clothes". But there's at least as much of a mood hangover in tracks like "Ghost Ship", where the understated sax and guitar riffing projects a light, neo-MOR tone akin to Jim O'Rourke's similarly titled song, while Albarn once more drifts through the landscape, aboard "a ghost ship, drowning my heart".
Heart, ultimately, is the key to a project which links personal, small-scale disturbances of loneliness and homesickness with broader concerns of population density and ecological sustainability. It's nowhere more elegantly expressed than in the beautiful "My Terracotta Heart", which achieves a wistful rapprochement between a gorgeous, melancholy melody and busy, clanking percussion that recalls Pink Floyd's "Money". Over gently cascading arabesques of bass and guitar, Albarn's anxieties are revealed through yet another image of drift, as he remembers "...swimming out too far one day/Then the coral was gone/But I didn't care anyway".
It's a sweetly sad recognition that ultimately, the personal and private drive our relationships with the public and political, a notion echoed in the closing "Mirrorball" as, over Richard Hawley-esque reverbed guitar and streaks of Oriental strings, he signs off from Skype with a gentle "Before you log out, hold close to me".
'The Magic Whip' is released on 27 April
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