Blur: Think Tank (Virgin)

It rethinks the sound that is Blur and is more dependent on Albarn’s vocals, heavier production, and a few gimmicks that a band of this stature doesn’t really need.

When a jumbo greatest hits album comes out (as with The Best of Blur in 2000), nothing good will come of it. Bands do this for one reason: they have reached a critical juncture and have nothing left in the gas tank but some fumes. Damon Albarn, Blur’s lead singer, reaffirmed it by spending gobs of time in Mali and then helping to launch Gorillaz on an unsuspecting planet. The band’s hurt feelings finally surfaced with the departure of founding member Graham Coxon. Blur recorded what eventually became Think Tank with the aid of studio musicians, then enlisted ex-Verve Simon Tong for their live show. (Recently, NME reported that Albarn said Coxon’s departure will not be permanent.) All of this did not make for the best atmosphere to record their first new album in four years.

Think Tank delivers, though. It rethinks the sound that is Blur and is more dependent on Albarn’s vocals, heavier production, and a few gimmicks that a band of this stature doesn’t really need. For the most part, though, it is the sound of a band with their eyes open, ready for action.

The album appears to have a clearer demarcation between the manic and the somber Blur than previous releases. There are sweet, almost melancholy songs, like “Good Song” (rumored to have been written by Coxon), and “Sweet Song.” The brooding “Ambulance” is a haunting song which brilliantly builds into this album’s sweetest number, “Out of Time.” Like several of the other really good songs on the disc, it crafts an airy, almost melancholy mood, fitting nicely with the quality of Albarn’s voice. He sounds a bit like a weary rock ’n’ roller with lyrics that lament life in the spotlight: “I’m a darkened soul,/My streets all pop music and gold,/Our lives are on TV,/You switch off and try to sleep,/People get so lonely.” Perhaps it comes from a realization that Blur is now officially an aging band, having been together 13 years.

The fast and funky songs are all words on a jag on Think Tank. They include the Fat Boy Slim–coproduced “Crazy Beat,” which is a bit irritating. The truly noxious, synthesized Damon voice wasn’t very cool in the ’70s and should not be allowed out of the box now. Much better is “Brothers and Sisters,” in which Albarn recites a list of drugs and their users. Perhaps this is his call for addiction recovery (though in “Crazy,” he is offering the president Ecstasy). “Brothers” is truly one of the best songs the band has done in years, heavy on Albarn and the funky beat. If the band had reached back into its bag of tricks in an attempt to re-create previous successes, “We’ve Got a File on You” would certainly be “Song 2” all over again. However, clocking in at just 1:01, it is an awful lot of fun, so who can deny them the opportunity?

Think Tank finds Blur with a fresh start. They are a band that can still rock, but they are also growing into their maturity with some dignity. Bands at this point can go off and try reliving their earlier years, or they can mine their skill and depth. I am hoping for the latter. Blur is a band with substantial talent and should not sell themselves short for only a hit or two more…that’s what the greatest hits disc was for.

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