Big audio bounceback: new albums by Blur and The Prodigy reviewed

The Albarn-Coxon concoction sounds surprisingly robust.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I realised I was getting old the other day when, speeding down the M1 in a van, me and some other people my age started raking through Spotify and briefly convinced ourselves that the early Nineties was the best period pop music had ever known. I don’t mean Britpop: rather, that bubble of time between 1991 and 1994 – “before Oasis and the internet ruined everything”, as one of them put it – when the Top Ten was dominated by rubbery, banging dance acts from the tail end of the rave era, still bearing a whiff of Cyberdog trousers and nitrous oxide and fronted by delightful grotesques such as Mr C of the Shamen (“nawty, nawty, very nawty”). What a long time ago it all was. The banker in the video for Blur’s “Country House” had a bowler hat. And the accents! None more Carry-On than Keith Flint, the horn-haired gremlin from the Prodigy, who has spent recent years motorbiking around Europe and taking part in various races, sometimes with his friend Lee Thompson of Madness in tow. Keith has been involved in the writing process for the first time on the Prodigy’s sixth album, The Day Is My Enemy (the title is a line from a Cole Porter song). It is not quite clear what he brought to the table creatively – the formula is the same as before – but this album is a proper party-in-the-pants for any ex-raver, with beats that throw your head into instant motion, spine-breaking basslines, mouse-high vocals by female singers who sound as if they’ve been dug up from 1992, and lyrics that rarely stretch beyond a cockney haiku: “Nasty, nasty! Triple-X-rated!” A whumping return to form, then, if anyone wanted one – with Sleaford Mods cropping up on “Ibiza” and complaining that the island’s not as good as it used to be (“Straights at eight quid a packet? Fuck that – I’m on the baccie, mate!”).

Nasty, nasty! The Prodigy’s Keith Flint.

Blur’s new album, The Magic Whip, like the Prodigy’s, was written in breaks in hotel rooms during their comeback tour; a lucky accident – they had five days free when a festival was cancelled – and also perhaps a sign of the way the cycle has been reversed: reunion tour comes first, new material is put together in the gaps, if at all.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling (and it’s rare) of putting on a new album by an old band, thinking it’s going to be full of crusty old pastiches, then being slapped in the face by one big, colourful song after another. I had low hopes for Whip because of the track they chose to perform at the end of Later... With Jools Holland – the moronic “Ong Ong”, with its lumpen beat and hang-jaw refrain (“La la la”), which seemed to spark a look of desperate boredom from Graham Coxon right down the camera.

But across the rest of the record, you get all the solo diversions Coxon and Albarn have made in the past 12 years, edited and fed into a sound that undeniably belongs to a band – or a good imitation of one, given that the music was worked on by Coxon and the producer Stephen Street while Albarn was on tour. It’s as though Albarn and Coxon, who fell out for years, took separate paths while continuing to think the same way, like separated lovers who once shared every joke. And so, Albarn’s signature interest in Far Eastern imagery (the album was recorded in Hong Kong) is given bigger, warmer melodic settings than it got in The Monkey Opera, while his backpacker ethos – roaming around hot countries and making wise pronouncements about them – which was so annoying on “Mr Tembo”, is intensely reflective in “Pyongyang”, an elegiac portrait of the imprisoned city.

On “New World Towers” you can hear the kind of gossamer medieval melodies he used in Dr Dee, his musical about Elizabeth I’s physician: they work better with Coxon’s modern folk thumbprint and a bit less lute. And the kinds of floaty observations he made about modern life and alienation in Everyday Robots sound less whimsical on songs such as “There Are Too Many of Us” when they’re bookended by well-oiled, Kinksian tunes such as the album opener, “Lonesome Street”, which is Blur doing Blur as we knew them back then.

Albarn couldn’t write all the lyrics for the album in that five-day jam session, unsurprisingly, so he returned to Hong Kong on his own to search for more inspiration (it worked: see the Pacific island-tinged “Ghost Ship”). That’s quite a nice image – frontman takes off on his own with a tune in his head, looking for words to fit it – and possibly a way Blur might continue to make music together and apart.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 01 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Scots are coming!