As one of the more inventive acts of the Britpop generation, Blur have always been a band with the capacity to surprise. But the announcement of their first new album in 12 years (or 16 since the last one with their full lineup), caught even the most ardent fans on the hop.
Album opener Lonesome Street seems very much intended to make a statement that Blur are back – and not ’Think Tank’ Blur, but Blur complete with guitarist Graham Coxon. It’s an almost cheeky pop blast, filled with just the sort of jangling guitar chords, breezy chorus lines and high-pitched ‘ooh-oohs’ that defined their Great Escape years.
By contrast, the pensive atmosphere and laconic beat of second track New World Towers would not have been out of place on Damon Albarn’s recent solo record, Everyday Robots.
As a record, it’s clearly influenced by their eastern travels (much of it was recorded in Hong Kong), and big city adventures. Thematically, it seems at times a slightly disjointed affair, with typically awkward if well-intentioned attempts to address bigger issues such as commercialism, overpopulation and modern urbanism. Modern Life is Still Rubbish, it seems. But then weren’t Blur always at their best when tackling the simpler things, like beer, football and heartbreak? Thankfully, their ambition spans beyond that.
This record reflects the sound and spirit of a band who have matured with every album they have made – and whose members have gone off on varying solo tangents. The trademark energy that punctuated their early 90s albums, the brash youthfulness of Parklife and the fuzzed up, lo-fo rebellion of their self-titled 1997 album (arguably their finest work), gives way to a more atmospheric feeling throughout. And despite Coxon’s return, this is no Britpop pastiche and it is too sonically adventurous to be over-reliant on guitar. There Are Too Many of Us is a haunting and almost unnerving slow burner of a track, with a film score-like string accompaniment, the abstract Ice Cream Man is dripping with off-kilter ambience, while Thought I Was A Spaceman serves up a brooding slice of electronica. They still have it in them to ramp up the energy levels though, and with the singalong chorus of Ong Ong you can just picture a floppy-haired Albarn pogoing about the stage.
The announcement of a new Blur album was a pleasant surprise, but overall it’s much more than that. It’s an ambitious, enchanting record that can sit proudly among some of their best work. Very much worth the wait.