Review: Blur, Think tank

Graham Coxon is out, Fatboy Slim is in, but Blur's new offering hardly marks a dramatic change of direction, says Kitty Empire

Blur: Think Tank
(Parlophone 582997-2-4)

The opening words of Think Tank sound rather like a motto. 'I ain't got nothing to be scared of,' sings Damon Albarn in a soft lilt, as stuttery percussion, ominous bass and some distant 'oohs' bob alongside him.

This is 'Ambulance', written while Albarn was working on songs for Gorillaz, his hugely successful cartoon-fronted project that many will now consider his primary concern. The song didn't really fit that band's hip-pop party vibe, so it became the jumping-off point for a fearless new Blur album, or, indeed, a New Blur album, given the radical changes afoot in this much-loved institution.

It's a useful key to the Think Tank, Albarn's opening line; a soft-edged declaration that Gorillaz's programmed beats, and Albarn's own seduction by the music of Mali and elsewhere, had set him free from Blur's back catalogue, from expectations. That a Blur album could be a record not primarily driven by rock, or, indeed, the guitar.

It took the painful excision of guitarist Graham Coxon to achieve this. He only plays on one song here, the sad closer, 'Battery In Your Leg', where his groaning guitar sounds bolshie and gutted. To Blur's credit, it's a poignant moment, with Damon gently musing: 'This is a ballad for the good times', as a piano quietly overtakes Coxon's guitar.

Albarn and Coxon never had quite the iconic ring of Jagger and Richards or Lennon and McCartney, but Blur are a very different animal without Coxon. It's futile to speculate what a follow-up to their 1999 album, 13, would have sounded like with him, so sour were relations between the childhood friends. But Think Tank misses Coxon's vitriolic guitar, his taut musical presence and his brake on Albarn's dafter intentions on such songs as 'Brothers and Sisters', for instance, a theoretically louche jam that tries far too hard to be funky. Justine Frischmann, Albarn's ex and historic muse, seems long gone, too, permanently consigned to 13's intense post-love songs.

Think Tank, then, is an album conceived in positivity and defiance, bathed in the heat of Morocco; slapped into life by dance producers such as Fatboy Slim and William Orbit, and weaned on samples, alternative percussion, muezzin calls and layers of unconventional sound sources. Is it that wildly experimental? No, although the brave sax solo on 'Jets' will come as a shock to fans of 'Song 2', Blur's old punk rock hit. That's why it's there. Rather, Think Tank is a scrupulously low-slung, loose-limbed creation, described by bassist Alex James recently as the first Blur album 'with hips'.

It begins well. 'Ambulance' and 'Out of Time' are excellent examples of Blur's emancipation, saturated with new sounds but faithful to melody. 'Out of Time', particularly, is a great ballad, intimate and live-sounding, in the tradition of great Albarn ballads like 'Tender' or 'To the End'.

Then the 'fun' begins. 'Crazy Beat' kicks off the Fatboy Slim offensive, a laddish, Vocoder-fuelled wheeze that adds dancefloor dynamics to a raw rock tune vaguely reminiscent of 'Song 2'. It's not Blur's finest hour, nor Norman Cook's, but it will reassure Blur-watchers (and the record company) that the band haven't entirely disappeared up Albarn's world music collection.

There's more shouty stuff on 'We've Got a File on You', a punk-rock stomp around a souk. The remainder of the album divides up into more tender, textured ballads - 'Sweet Song' is especially lovely - and the New Blur liberation romps.

These tend to recall Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones' post-Clash outfit, especially when Damon does his nasal Mick impression. The most spontaneous of these is 'Moroccan People's Revolutionary Bowls Club', although 'Gene by Gene's' opening percussion has much to commend it, built as it is out of cymbals dipped in a fish tank and Damon jumping up and down on a car bonnet.

It's hard to fault such spontaneity, but Think Tank is not Blur's Pet Sounds, a work of skewed genius that will redefine them in years to come. It's the sound of a band at play in a twenty-first century tinker's caravan. Sometimes, the sense of freedom is infectious, the burbles and squelches welcome, but often, it's just a passing rattle and hum, like watching someone else's round-the-world holiday video. You're glad they had fun, but it won't change your life.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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