Nobody’s buying many albums these days, certainly not like they were in the late ’90s and early aughts during Blur’s commercial peak. But for Damon Albarn, front man of the British quartet, there’s at least one benefit to having a new record, The Magic Whip, his band’s first in 12 years: “Now we don’t have to play the songs that I can’t sing anymore because they’re too high,” he says, smiling barely enough to reveal a gold front tooth. Albarn, 47, is slouched onto a chair in the courtyard of Tribeca’s Greenwich Hotel next to guitarist Graham Coxon, 46, who’s vaping away behind a pair of Ray-Bans. They, along with bassist Alex James, 46, and drummer Dave Rowntree, 51, are in town to play The Tonight Show and a surprise concert at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, and with a dozen new songs in their repertoire, all comfortably within Albarn’s vocal range, they can take a few older ones out of rotation. “It’s impossible for me to sing ‘Charmless Man’ anymore,” says Albarn, referring to Blur’s 1996 single, which swerves in and out of falsetto. “I’d like to try doing it again, but [we’d have to rearrange it] and you get onto dangerous grounds when you try to reinvent something.” Coxon agrees: “It’s horrible when bands do that to your favorite song. They suddenly make it loungy and add lots of seven chords.”
Twenty-five years after their first public gig, the members of Blur have so far managed to avoid the middle-age cheesiness that most artists don’t. With world-conquering rock bands in limited supply this decade, the popular and critical reputation of their oeuvre — which spans the wry, Anglo-centric pop of their early years (1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1994’s Parklife, and 1995’s The Great Escape); the noisier, indie-rock-indebted sound of their middle period (1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13); and the sulky electronic music they made as a three-piece after Coxon quit the group (2003’s Think Tank) — seems to have only grown since they last released an LP. So when the band reunited as a live act in 2009, they found steady work as festival headliners, performing faithful, non-loungy versions of their greatest hits at Coachella, Glastonbury, and the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.
But why would they jeopardize their good standing with something so risky as a comeback album? Despite the warm reception for “Under the Westway,” the one-off single written for the Olympics, Albarn was against it. “I haven’t had a hit since ‘Feel Good Inc.,’ and ‘Song 2’ was almost 20 years ago,” he says, citing, respectively, the 2005 track by his cartoon hip-hop side project Gorillaz and the accidental sports-rock anthem from 1997 for which Blur is still best known in the U.S. “We can headline Glastonbury, which is full of people under 30, but we can’t get played on youth radio in Britain anymore because we’re too old — if you’re over 30, you can’t get played on Radio 1. It’s a government edict.” Even if he could write a song to compete on the modern charts, he’s not sure he’d want to. “I couldn’t quite believe that Carly Rae Jepsen song when I heard it. The chorus is ‘I really, really, really, really, really, really, really like you.’ Where do we go after Carly Rae Jepsen? I’m not saying that that song is all songs, but it’s symptomatic of the dumbing down of music,” says Albarn, who can still remember a time when pop stars were more frugal with their adverbs. (“Yes, it really, really, really could happen,” goes one of Blur’s most famous choruses.)
In 2012, Albarn, who has an appalling track record at predicting his own next moves, announced that Blur would never play live or release new music again. But on their tour in Asia the following year, a last-minute festival cancellation presented an extended layover in Hong Kong, so Albarn pushed his bandmates into a studio. “We were faced with five days off in a beautiful hotel, which to me sounded fantastic,” says Coxon, dryly funny this morning, despite his jet-lagged arrival from Paris last night. “But Damon said, ‘Let’s just make this stupid album that people want.’ ”
It wasn’t quite that easy. The weeklong jam session yielded a few encouraging sketches but not much in the way of structured pop music. “Some songs were 20 minutes long, some were 45,” says Coxon. “We’d get into a chord sequence and get hypnotized by it.” After promising a new Blur album from the stage at their Hong Kong concert, Albarn went home to London and turned his attention to a solo record, last year’s brooding Everyday Robots, and says he never listened to the tapes. Coxon couldn’t stop thinking about them, though. In November, he asked Albarn’s permission to revisit the material, enlisting longtime Blur producer Stephen Street to help him edit. When they were satisfied, they played it for Albarn. “I couldn’t remember what we’d done, but I got stoned and they put it on,” says the singer. “It was like, Oh, yeah, that’s nice.” Albarn added lyrics, James and Rowntree polished their rhythm parts, and by February the album was complete.
Despite its disjointed production, The Magic Whip sounds pretty much like Blur, albeit a more grown-up version. Upbeat tracks like “Lonesome Street,” “I Broadcast,” and “Go Out” could have fit on any of the band’s previous albums, but the overall tendency is toward proggy, mid-tempo numbers — “Thought I Was a Spaceman,” “There Are Too Many of Us,” “Mirrorball” — that begin in Everyday Robots territory before shooting off in unexpected directions. Reviews have been universally positive, with New York’s Lindsay Zoladz calling Whip “immersive, complex, and understatedly lovely — a worthy inclusion in the band’s arc.” But some of the highest acclaim has come from Liam and Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Blur’s former Britpop nemeses: “ ‘Lonesome St’ by Blur [is the] song of the year,” tweeted Liam. “[The album] sounds pretty good,” said Noel during a Reddit AMA, which, in the context of everything he said about Blur in the ’90s, must be considered a rave.
What The Magic Whip is missing is the musical war of wills between pop classicist Albarn and guitar anti-hero Coxon, whose unruly effects pedals used to make even Albarn’s stateliest ballads wobble on their axes. Coxon, who plays more politely on Whip, says he’s a different musician now: “I was petulant in my 20s. I was being ridiculous with my contrariness and destroying guitars. But I don’t really relate to myself as that person anymore. [For this album] I had a bit of a producer’s hat on. I realized that we had to organize this stuff and give it to Damon. I wasn’t going to put a wall of guitars on it. That’s like saying ‘Go away.’ ”
Even though the members of Blur made some of their best music while at one another’s throats — after he quit, Coxon said he was tired of being “dragged kicking and screaming all the way around the fucking world on [Albarn’s] megalomaniacal trip” — lately they’ve been very keen to talk about how well they’re getting along. A recent report in a British music magazine that the band underwent relationship counseling prior to their 2009 reunion was false, says Rowntree: “It was actually alternative dispute resolution, back when we were sussing out the legal side of our separation from Graham [in 2003]. Basically, the mediator put us in the same room, and ten minutes later we were all laughing and joking, and we went to a pub and let the lawyers get on with it.” Says James, “We’re all reasonably satisfied now, so we’re not arguing about whose band it is — there’s always friction, but the music blows that all away. They’re my best friends.” And in conversation, Albarn and Coxon, whose renewed friendship inspired the Magic Whip love song “My Terracotta Heart,” are almost comically deferential to each other: “Yeah, I’m the bad guy,” says Albarn, discussing his reputation for thwarting new Blur albums. “We’ve both been bad guys,” offers Coxon. “I think I’ve been the bad guy more than you, though,” says Albarn. “Not that it’s a competition.”
Since their 2003 hiatus, they’ve all gone their very separate ways. Albarn has collaborated with the Clash’s Paul Simonon (2007’s The Good, the Bad, & the Queen) and Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers (2012’s Rocket Juice & the Moon) and composed two well-received operas (Monkey: Journey to the West and Dr Dee); he’s currently finishing a musical, wonder.land, based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, for Britain’s National Theatre, which he says hasn’t left him much time for the new Gorillaz record that’s also reportedly in the works. Coxon made a series of solo albums, including a gorgeous, mostly acoustic one (2009’s The Spinning Top). James wrote a pair of very good memoirs, took up cheese-making, and bought a farmhouse down the street from British PM David Cameron’s country place. Rowntree ran twice for Parliament on the Labour ticket and is now a practicing criminal-defense lawyer, luckily at a firm whose lax vacation policy allows for his band’s promotional duties. “They like the fact that the drummer in Blur works at their company, so I get away with murder,” he says.
So now that they’ve made The Magic Whip, how likely is a follow-up? “Oh, God, give us a minute,” says James. “It’s a lovely thing to come back to, but I don’t know if it will ever happen again.” When I ask about the status of the band’s record deal, and whether they owe any more albums, Albarn deflects: “It’s all so immaterial now, the whole idea of a record label. It’s like visiting an ancient ruin, you know?” But Rowntree, perhaps better qualified to parse the legalese of their contract, tells me, “Our original deal was extended a couple of times. I think we’re eight albums into an 11-album deal.” Does that mean three more Blur albums? “Well, it’s a record contract, not quite an employment contract. So they can’t force you into the studio.”
They’re more forthcoming about tour plans. Blur will play British festivals this summer, and they’re hopeful about a return visit to the States. “I have an ambition to play Madison Square Garden with Graham,” says Albarn. “I’d definitely get on a plane for that” — provided, he says, the demand is there. Evidence says that it is: the autograph seekers waiting outside the hotel, the concierge who almost plotzes after Albarn stops by the desk to have a word about his room, plus the 550 fans who line up two days later in front of the Music Hall of Williamsburg, where Blur plays 11 new songs and three old ones, with all high notes intact. Surely they’d have no trouble filling our modest arena, right? “Well,” says Albarn, “we are one of the ’90s’ greatest boy bands.”
*This article appears in the May 18, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.