The magic whip è il disco che nessuno si aspettava. Non solo, è il disco che loro stessi non si aspettavano.
I Blur gravitano da sempre intorno a Damon Albarn e Graham Coxon: il primo un genio pop, il secondo un hipster amante degli effetti di chitarra più indie. Dopo i primi dischi lo spazio richiesto dal loro ego all’interno della band crebbe e come spesso accade si trovarono a non saper più scendere a compromessi; albarn si inventò i Gorillaz e incise un disco solista di musiche del Mali, Coxon cominciò a pubblicare dischi solisti. Dopo 13, non a caso il disco più sperimentale del gruppo nel quale Coxon sgomitava per emergere, il chitarrista se ne andò. I Blur pubblicarono un album senza di lui e poi puff, disciolti nel nulla. Era il 2003.
Negli anni i due quasi-amici come spesso capita si riavvicinarono, tant’è che i Blur si riunirono due volte. Prima due concerti, poi un 45-giri (davvero, non uscì in altro formato!) e poi altri, pochi concerti.
A metà 2014 la band doveva presenziare ad un festival in Giappone, che però fu cancellato all’ultimo momento. Rimasero quindi per qualche giorno a Hong Kong, in attesa del volo prenotato per riportare tutti a casa. Si guardarono in faccia e si dissero: “perché non andiamo in studio a buttare giù qualche idea?”. E così fecero. Di fatto le 12 canzoni di The Magic Whip vengono tutte fuori da lì e nacquero come lunghe jam strumentali basate di volta in volta da un abbozzo composto da Damon Albarn sull’iPad o da Coxon alla chitarra.
Tornati a casa, per mesi lasciarono da parte le registrazioni, finché un giorno Coxon incontrò il loro vecchio produttore e venne loro voglia di rimettere mano ai pezzi. Albarn approvò e se ne volò di nuovo a Hong Kong, in cerca di ispirazione per i testi, per poi tornare ad aiutare gli altri in sede di cut/paste dei pezzi. Graham Coxon ha descritto tutto il processo come “quando stai guidando e becchi una serie di semafori verdi. Semplicemente vai avanti.”
Cosa ne è uscito alla fine? E’ uscito un disco sorprendentemente ispirato, nel quale i Blur abbandonano il lato più sperimentale e strumentale gettandosi in una serie di canzoni per lo più normali ma tutte con un wit in più: un andamento sbilenco, un assolo di basso, un bridge inatteso… nessuno dei 12 pezzi che compongono The Magic Whip fila dall’inizio alla fine esattamente come te lo aspetti. Ci sono dei pezzi più Blur-trademark, altri più anomali, ma alla fine è un album che musicalmente si collocherà al centro della discografia della band: non ingenuo e urgente come i primi dischi, non costruito e arzigogolato come 13 e Think Thank, ma un’onesta via di mezzo.
Una nota particolarmente interessante sono i testi: pesantemente influenzati dalla permanenza della band a Hong Kong, spesso però sembrano riflettere esplicitamente (su tutte, in Terracotta Heart) la relazione a due tra Coxon e Albarn, ormai giunta a quel punto in cui arrivano le amicizie mature: l’affetto incondizionato e la consapevolezza dichiarata che una volta scenderò a compromessi io, una volta lo farai tu.
Il New Musical Express ha recensito il disco con un track-by-track interessante e in un’altra occasione ha chiesto di fare un commento per brano a nientemeno che Graham Coxon stesso. Riporto qui, per ogni pezzo, le riflessioni più interessanti. La recensione finisce qui, ma le curiosità iniziano ora 🙂
“There’s a definite familiarity with that song,” says Coxon. “We weren’t in uncharted waters with it, we were well within the realms of the Blur world. It’s got that cheeky-sounding vocal of Damon’s, that perverse nursery-rhyme feel, and it all sounds a bit like you’re careening through a night of chaos.” ‘Chaotic’ is a pretty good way of describing it: this is a song that seems to shoot off in a hundred different directions, a quirk of the piecemeal fashion in which it came together. “When I was listening back to it with Stephen, I thought, ‘Why not go the whole hog and have a really Syd Barrett-y middle-eight in there?’” recalls Coxon. “So I wrote another section for it, which is about the way you seem to ride the tarmac in Hong Kong: you stand on the road, you don’t move, and it’ll take you anywhere you want to go. It’s a very lighthearted way to start the record.”
‘New World Towers’
Damon takes to the piano for the album’s next offering – a more introverted, bassline-driven number that recalls the singer’s work with The Good, The Bad and The Queen more than Blur. With lyrics about buildings “carved out of the great white sky”, it has the feel of a bustling yet distant metropolis, coming good on Albarn’s statement that the album is “very much an urban record”.
GC: “It’s a bit like that weird cylindrical planet at the end of Interstellar – I loved that image from the film, so I was trying to write some chord sequences that sounded quite traditional, but putting these 1970s-sounding futuristic effects on top of them. It’s one of my favourites on the album.”
The first taster from the album, chosen, in Coxon’s words, “because it wasn’t a jolly, winking, over-familiar Blur thing – I realise that a lot of people love Blur because of those songs, and lot of people hate them because of it, and people from the camp who hate us probably don’t know much about the other stuff that we did. ‘Go Out’ struck me as being somewhere between the two
‘Ice Cream Man’
A strange little song, built around a blooping keyboard riff that sounds like it was sourced from an early ’90s Megadrive game. In reality, Coxon pinched it from Damon’s hard-drive. “Damon’s got all sorts of crazy things he’s done on GarageBand,” he explains, “and quite a bit of the album was done by building songs around those ideas and gluing them together with bits of the jam sessions we did in Hong Kong. So that song started as this little chord sequence, then Stephen and I chopped up some improvised vocals and made a chorus out of them.”
‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’
For Coxon, the key theme of ‘The Magic Whip’, both musically and lyrically, “is this atmosphere of dislocation that’s running throughout, of these odd sounds that drift in and out, letting you know that you’re not really in the world you inhabit, the one you’re familiar with – you’ve somehow gone somewhere else.” That’s certainly the case with this track, which at a shade over six minutes is the album’s longest. It offers a snapshot of an unfamiliar – perhaps even post-apocalyptic – earth, which seems to bear more resemblance to the surface of Mars: “The desert had encroached upon the places where we lived/ People like me tried to keep the demons hid”. Eventually, in a Planet Of The Apes-style twist, one of the sand dunes the titular spaceman is rooting around in turns out to be none other than London’s Hyde Park
Lyrically, the guitarist reckons it’s all about “when you go to different places, and the people there know a lot about you, even though you don’t think they do”, and the song seems to depict a world that’s growing ever-smaller and more interconnected, where your identity is indexed, your movements are catalogued and you can never truly disappear – “I love the aspects of another city/ It’s got your number and your blood type”
‘My Terracotta Heart’
Tissues at the ready, this one could get weepy. Minimal and tender, if ‘My Terracotta Heart’ doesn’t get you with its fragile sonics (a very close cousin to Albarn solo track ‘Hollow Ponds’) then it’ll sucker punch you lyrically. “We were more like brothers/ But that was years ago,” laments Damon. “I’m running out of open roads to you”. Never has Damon and Graham’s delicate yin/yang relationship been splayed open so bare, and with ‘The Magic Whip’ by all accounts doing a good deal of inter-band healing, these insights seem all the more poignant
“It’s a lovely song,” says Coxon, “and again, I think it’s new territory for Blur. The four of us have kind of met in the middle with this album – we’ve all been off on our own individual journeys, but when we come together and something like ‘My Terracotta Heart’ is the result, that’s a good marriage of all our different tastes and outlooks.”
‘There Are Too Many Of Us’
Damon has revealed was partly inspired by the 2014 Sydney hostage crisis, but on which the spectre of Hong Kong – one of the most densely-populated cities on earth – is never far away. “There are a million ways you can interpret that lyric,” says Coxon of the titular line, “but for me, when we were in Hong Kong at first, I’d sometimes look out the window and think, ‘Yeah, there are too many of us.’
“when we were in Hong Kong we were going to the studio every day with this kind of rush-hour mindset, going from the hotel through an incredibly weird glass shopping mall to this beautifully-tiled subway area where we’d get on the train. And I guess Hong Kong was sticking to us along the way – we were seeing things, hearing things, and that somehow came out in the music.”
This song has understandably been the source of much speculation – is Damon angling for a spot on Kim Jong-Un’s shitlist? Talking to GQ last year about his visit to the North Korean capital, Albarn likened it to a “magic kingdom, in the sense that everyone is under a spell,” and that quote is key to understanding ‘Pyongyang’, a bewitched metropolis of empty avenues and unspeakable sorrow, where “the pink light that bathed the great leaders is fading”. It’s not the straightforward attack on the Kim dynasty that you might expect, but something altogether more affecting: a portrait of life in a beautiful, but desolate, Stalinist Never-Never Land.
A jaunty, joyous little curveball of a song, featuring slightly wonky Beach Boys harmonies and a chorus that’s just begging to be played at Hyde Park this summer. “It’s a bit of a knees-up,” agrees Coxon. “When Damon did the lyrics and I went to listen to the vocal he said to me, ‘I’ve gone a bit populist with this one,’ but there’s not an awful lot you can do with a song like that: it kind of has to be a beers-in-the-air singalong.
“It’s another of those fairly simple songs, but again, it sounds very big and emotional,” says Coxon. “I’ve always loved playing massive, reverberated chords and bending them with the tremolo arm – I like the dissonance you get from bending the strings, like in Chinese and Indian music.”