Friday, June 18, 2010

Think Tank by Blur (2003)

Blur had something to prove with this, their “last” album. Having had a commendably stable four-man line-up for all of their 13-year career, guitarist Graham Coxon was more-or-less forced out of the band in 2002. Recordings proceeded, however, as did a tour. How would the band fare without the man who defined much of their sound through his distinct guitar-playing, backing vocals, glasses wearing and occasional singing-songwriting, like on the fantastic “Coffee & TV”?

The answer is: “remarkably gracefully”. Not surprisingly, the band is much more oriented towards Damon Albarn’s whims than before, being an unopposed bandleader and creative force. This is also the first Blur album since Albarn’s huge success with the Gorillaz project, and its shadow is clearly felt on Think Tank. A “world music” aesthetic permeates the sound as well, a nod to Albarn’s personal interests (his Mali Music project had come out the year before). It sounds like a recipe for disaster: take a britpop band, add some totalitarian leadership and ill-advised new directions, and watch it sink in the 21st century.

But it must not be forgotten that Blur were much more keen to experiment than their 1990s peers (apart from perhaps Radiohead). Already in 1997, when Oasis released Be Here Now, perhaps the ultimate anthem to Britpop stagnation, Blur had taken a left turn and “gone indie” on their self-titles album. Under creative direction from Graham Coxon, the band had taken American indie rock to heart, taking a more overdriven guitar-led approach. The next album, 1999’s 13 took the hinted-at trip hop influences of its predecessor and combined them with freeform song structures, sensitive ballads and the aforementioned “Coffee and TV”. Blur had released a Kid A album a year before Radiohead.

Compared to 13, Think Tank is much more conventional. It has proper songs, some of them even catchy to the point of being single material. The opening track in particular, is very strong:

Moody, ambitious and with plain lyrics. The instrumentation creates a soundscape that’s as desolate as the Banksy cover artwork. As the dub-like bass plods along, the drum part hints at faraway machinegun fire. Textures are added as the song progresses, finally including saxophone, backing vocals, organ, and several guitar parts. “Out of Time”, the second track, is clearly another strong one, following traditional album sequencing rules of putting the catchy, strong stuff up front to impress the buyer/record company. On this track, the Moroccan instrumentation that shows up on many tracks is heard for the first time. Partly recorded in Morocco, the setting and proposed production duties by Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook were points of conflict for Albarn and Coxon, in part leading to the latter’s departure.

Nowhere is the ghost of Fatboy Slim felt more plainly than on “Crazy Beat”, the third track. This turd of a song almost ruins the album, cynically retreading the already interminable and omnipresent “Song 2”, but with added synths and a novelty voice that cuts through all the beauty and subtlety of the first two tracks. The paradoxically overweight ghost will make a further misguided entrance on track 12, “Gene by Gene”, although surprisingly not on the equally “high energy” (read: Song 2 retread) “We’ve Got A File On You”. The shock of “Crazy Beat” is considerably softened by the aptly titled “Good Song”, a mellow, dreamy ballad that ranks among Blur’s best. The next several songs are the most characteristic of Think Tank; beat-driven songs, with a certain club element. “On The Way To The Club” lyrically hints at Alice in Wonderland, while also half-citing a certain other major English recording artist with the line “My eyes are blue/and there’s nothing I can do”. “Sweet Song” is an apt companion piece to “Good Song”, a dreamy electric piano-led piece.

The album could not hope for a better ending than “Battery in Your Leg”. It is the only track that is partly credited to Graham Coxon, and the only one on which his playing is heard. It is a melancholy and self-referential piano ballad with epic guitar work that ends the album on a dizzying low, just like “This Is A Low” did on Parklife. It would also end the band’s recording career.

The album received mixed reviews upon release, which is understandable considering the disjointed impression the album leaves on listeners and the negativity surrounding Coxon’s departure. It remains sorely underrated in Blur’s catalogue, although its legacy received a welcome nod when Blur reunited in 2009. Whereas some revisionist bands, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, shun all material recorded in the absence of certain key members, Blur played “Out of Time” with Coxon on their tourdates.

“Out of Time”, along with “Good Song” and “Battery in Your Leg” also featured on the newly released career-spanning compilation Midlife, an excellent release featuring many album tracks and omiting a few singles. Thankfully, it also spares us from “Crazy Beat”. Think Tank is proof of a band’s ability to transcend its inner difficulties, innovate at a later stage in its careers and produce something intriguing and listenable. While hit-and-miss, its better songs stand the test of time, and show that Blur had plenty to offer in its “terminal” phase.