Damon Albarn of Blur isn’t a fan of what’s on the radio these days. "Look at music now,” he told The Sunday Times earlier this month. “Does it say anything? Young artists talk about themselves, not what’s happening out there. It’s the selfie generation. They’re talking platitudes."
Is that the sound of a middle-aged musician making like middle-aged musicians everywhere and sniping ignorantly at Kids These Days, or is it a valuable critique of the vapid mainstream? Take your pick. In either case, Albarn's comment is also a salvo in that universal record-geek bargument over whether lyrics truly matter. The reasonable answer is “sometimes” or “it depends”: Many classic songs have nonsense words, and many decent ones have been elevated by their poetry. But Albarn speaks for a lot of people when he implies that, in general, culture is worse off when songwriters just spit out cliches and faux-introspection instead of trying to communicate something about the wider world.
The irony is that Blur offered one of the all-time-great pieces of evidence in favor of the idea that it doesn't matter what music says: The woohoo-laden “Song 2” tried to parody U.S. rock radio and ended up ruling it, with most American listeners never getting that the joke was on them. In Britain, where Blur were far more popular than in the States, the band's subversive edge has been more widely understood. But with the release of The Magic Whip, Blur's first album in 12 years, much of the coverage on both continents has focused on Blur as Blur, rehashing the old Britpop mythology and puzzling over the relationships between the members rather than focusing on what Albarn’s music says.
Then again, parsing his musical messages can be complicated. The Magic Whip came about spontaneously, when five days of downtime in Hong Kong during a Blur tour turned into a studio session. Somewhat controversially, the recording location seeped into the album both visually—Chinese lettering on the album cover, Chinese cooking in the first music video—and lyrically, with references to Asian locales from the Java Sea to Kowloon. Albarn has called the album “political” and says the title is a metaphor for power; bassist Alex James told The Quietus that the foreign environment imbued the band with “the sense of time pressure and urgency, the claustrophobia from being in a unknown place overseas.”
You can hear those ideas most clearly on The Magic Whip's slower songs. “New World Towers” sees Albarn marveling at the colors of a glowing skyline; “Pyongyang” achingly describes “the pink light that bathes the great leaders” of the North Korean capital; “There Are Too Many of Us” conveys in its title the claustrophobia that James talked about; “I Thought I Was a Spaceman” imagines a time when sand dunes have covered London's Hyde Park. The words, overall, are impressionistic; the uniting emotions seem to be wonder at unfamiliar sights, isolation amid crowds, and anxiety about the environment.
Do those thematic concerns make the album good? No—the music does. Blur has always stood up for the idea that rock arrangements can be quirky without being alienating, and The Magic Whip continues in that tradition, offering crisp tunes with sprinklings of strange. The opener, “Lonesome Street,” is a prime example, featuring chugging guitar with burbling background noises, newscaster yammering, and Beatles-esque vocal refrains. For a similar busy-city effect, “I Broadcast” grafts the giddy vibe of The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” onto a bed of electronic pings. The best track and lead single, “Go Out,” rides a “My Sharona”-esque riff through a cloud of dissonance as Albarn moans tiredly, evoking masses of weary people lurching toward a local pub.
Listening to these songs, you get snippets of concrete, on-theme lyrics—“too many Westerners” crowd the bar of “Go Out,” sweat-shop consumerism shows up on “Lonesome Street,” images of melting tarmac sit between campfire-ready “la-la-la”s on “Ong Ong.” But besides the swirling-strings overpopulation ballad “There Are Too Many of Us,” the only song where Albarn’s message needs no decoding is “My Terracotta Heart.” Over a clock-like rhythm and spindly guitars, he sings about his relationship with guitarist Graham Coxon, a relationship that was severed more than a decade ago and has only been tentatively repaired. "Is something broke inside you?" he asks, movingly. "Because at the moment I'm lost and feeling that I don't know If I'm losing you again." You might note that this is the exact kind of lyrical style—personal, possibly platitudinal—that Albarn wishes fewer people would indulge in. But amid the abstractions of The Magic Whip, it's a reminder of when, exactly, words really do matter.