It's been more than a dozen years since the last Blur album and 16 since the group's last recording with all four members — frontman-guitarist-keyboardist Damon Albarn, vocalist-guitarist-keyboardist Graham Coxon, drummer Dave Rowntree, and bassist Alex James — fully involved in the recording process.
The members have kept busy during that time with Coxon's solo albums and Albarn's various projects — including Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad & the Queen — being the most visible, as well as sporadic Blur gigs and song releases.
The Britpop pioneers make up for lost time as a recording concern on their solid new album, "The Magic Whip," out Tuesday.
Recorded over five days in China in 2013 — and largely lyrically inspired by Albarn's time in the country and urban metropolis Hong Kong — the 12-track collection was tinkered with in 2014 by Coxon with assistance from longtime Blur producer Stephen Street (The Smiths, Kaiser Chiefs) and then topped off by contributions from the rest of the band and Albarn's lyrics.
For longtime fans of Blur's alluring blend of pop smarts, rock edge, and electronic flourishes, "The Magic Whip" is close to a slam dunk, as the quartet conjures the vibe of its '90s glory days without veering into rehash territory, making it a good ambassador for potential new listeners as well.
Among the standout tracks is "New World Towers," as a lovely piano line, a spindly guitar riff, and solemn backing vocals underscore Albarn's musings about gleaming skyscrapers that are at once distant and close, giving the song a sense of both dislocation and intimacy, a pattern that recurs throughout.
First single "Go Out" is an ultra-catchy slice of rock pop that has an airiness to the vocals offset by a red-hot, needling quality to the guitars. The appropriately dreamy "Thought I Was a Spaceman," with its ticking layers of percussion, offers both a sense of grandeur and closeness; depending on the mood, you could picture a cinematic tale unfolding on an IMAX screen or within the confines of your own imagination. "I Broadcast," an obvious single contender, is a straight up dance rock jam that gets the job done in under three minutes.
The most heartening aspect of the album is how easy it is to imagine many of the new songs — like the ambling "Ong Ong," with its claptrack and eminently singable hook, and leadoff track "Lonesome Street," with its Bowie-esque vocals and chunky guitars — holding their own nicely in concert should the band choose to tour, a possibility at which they have hinted. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL "New World Towers"