In the Nineties, Oasis won the major Brit-pop battles: worldwide album sales, U.K. Number One singles and gossip-column yardage. But their archrivals, Blur, soundly beat them in exploration and legacy. Oasis wanted to be as big as the Beatles and the Who combined; Blur embodied those bands' impatient forward march. At their studio peak – the five albums from 1993's Modern Life Is Rubbish to 1999's 13 — they dissected the generational malaise behind Brit-pop's lad-ish swagger in a hook-smart rush of mod crunch, shoegazer psychedelia, dance-floor invention, sumptuous balladry and angular alternative rock.
Blur now take the endurance trophy, too. Oasis broke up in 2009, while Blur's classic lineup — singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree — has made its first new album in 16 years, one as quixotic and seductive in its modern searching and subversive pop highs as those Nineties winners. The Magic Whip is named after a Chinese brand of firecracker, and Blur recorded the guts of its 12 songs with explosive impulse in Hong Kong after a big Far East gig was canceled. Albarn — Blur's lyricist, whose solo work and collaborations draw liberally from Asia and Africa — drops local references in the gauzy drift of "Ghost Ship" ("Swinging on a cable/Up to Po Lin," a Buddhist monastery) and the tiki-bar kitsch of "Ong Ong" ("I want to be with you/On a slow boat to Lantao").
But there is darker exotica in the album's spare electronics and hard turns, like the swerve from the Kinks-like "Lonesome Street" to the spongy trip-hop of "New World Towers." The endless neon and digital addiction in the latter song ("Log in your name and pray 24 hours"); the contradictory funk and willful isolation in "Go Out": This is travel without resolution, an open ticket through a world made smaller by smartphones at the expense of sincere connection. In "Thought I Was a Spaceman," Albarn sounds like David Bowie's Major Tom falling through clouds of church organ and Coxon's sighing guitar. "People like me fight to keep the demons in/But we never succeeded," Albarn admits. It's a gorgeous trip with a cold landing.
Albarn has become a multidiscipline star with bands like the hip-hop conceit Gorillaz and as a theatrical composer, while Coxon has a fine line of wayward solo LPs. They were already too restless, in love with overreach, at Blur's original height to make truly perfect albums. That hasn't changed. The Magic Whip could have used more taut "Song 2"-style yippee like "I Broadcast"; "There Are Too Many of Us" is too slender to sustain its repetition.
But you get, at the end of the ennui, a great new ballad in "Mirrorball," with Albarn singing like Scott Walker holding up the bar in a Sergio Leone Western against Coxon's wiry shivers of guitar. Blur excelled at this sublime romanticism — "This Is a Low," on 1994's Parklife; "The Universal," on 1995's The Great Escape — while Oasis flexed their wild-boy brawn. The latter didn't have enough to last. Blur have returned with inspiration to spare.