It's finally happened: Blur have become one of those bands. They've all the trappings of a juicy biography or gripping Behind the Music: the bruises of high-profile romances, the filth-n-fury of the Britpop highlife, the slander of scurrilous public tiffs, and the drama of clashing egos finally resulting the loss of one of the groups founding members, Graham Coxon. They've given up drink (two of them, anyway), dames (Dave Rowntree is married; Damon Albarn is seriously involved and is a father), and dependence (on Coxon, producer Stephen Street, the sound of Britpop). Simply put, the foursome-now-threesome have become legends.
But have they also plateaued? Nearly 10 years past Parklife, and four since their last record, the reborn Blur are, paradoxically, also a relic. Live Forever Britpop's answer to 24 Hour Party People, has been reminding audiences across Great Britain just how long ago those as-English-as-ya-wanna-be days really were (the film will be making doing similar work in the States soon, as well). Sure, bands who've followed in their footsteps -- like Coldplay, Travis, and the Doves -- continue to have to answer to that aural movement that Blur helped initiate and define. Still, though Blur have achieved the success and longevity that these newer acts can only dream of, their younger successors have accomplished something Blur never have: real, tangible popularity in the States. After all, with Albarn's unmistakable cockney, songs so hooky they draw blood, and a back catalog that includes songs titled "Bank Holiday" and "Country House", Blur are branded by Britpop, whether they like it or not. With those days dead and gone, what could Blur possibly have to say, today?
Enter Think Tank. The first Blur record of the new millennium, and first full length output since 1999's 13, Think Tank is a globetrotter of a record, gallivanting through sound and time, mood and attitude, form and content. Characterized by bassist Alex James as a groundbreaking moment in their career on par with Parklife, this album is sure to challenge both friends and foes of the band to reconsider what they think Blur are made of.
First things first -- the layout. Coxon's out, soulful back up vocals are in, saxophones erupt, tricks and gags sprout up from the layers of sound like weeds. Overall, the music is much less guitar driven, though there are moments of itchy rock outs that rival the most rambunctious tunes off 1997's Blur. The album is also, purposefully, less cohesive. Whereas almost every prior Blur album listened like a tessellation -- both in content and sound a concept record -- the "concept" here is bricolage, more like irregularly shaped pieces of broken glass rendered together rather than something that came ready-made. In short, this album takes numerous listens to "get." Rule number one: give it time.
The first bars of "Ambulance", the album's opener, are stricken with throbbing beats that sound simultaneously futuristic and primitive, soon met by a languid bass groove and a gospel-twinged back up vocals. "I ain't got nothing to be scared of," Albarn sings, in a gauzy falsetto. He's singing about love, but it's also a fitting introduction to a record that's such an extreme departure from their past work, and so drastically left field from the garage and post-punk and easily accessible poprock currently drenching the airwaves. Then his voice drops, into his low swinging monotone, and he croons, carelessly, almost as if he's freestyling. A baritone sax line cuts underneath the back up singers, at an angle -- so quirky it feels like Morphine could have played it. Things change again. They keep changing. If this song were a living being it'd have no belly -- just a tizzy of flailing appendages.
From that curious introduction comes "Out of Time", a much more straightforward, apace ballad. Dominant in the track are Albarn's unadulterated vocals and steady, simplistic drums, but beyond that are ethereal, hard-to-identify noises. In the middle of the track, an Andalucian string group rears its head, as does a tambourine. The lushness of this song hardly prepares one for "Crazy Beat", the first US single and an energetic, punked-out rocker. But as much as this song might appeal to the neo-DIY set -- complete with its jumpy chorus and lively melody -- Blur are anything but. If there's one thing Blur are known for, it's lots and lots and lots of production. Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), builds this number with tons of sound, so there's always another active level to uncover. (Ben Hiller, who has worked with Tom McRae and Elbow, produces the bulk of the record.)
The best moments of this album are those when vintage Blur styles are evoked with new expertise. The meandering "Good Song" is a beautiful case in point. Acoustic guitar picking is matched with temperate drums and a sweet, steady bass countermelody. Albarn's singing is mostly in his mid-range, falling out as easily as breath. Signature background vocal harmonies are there to brighten up the track, but their muted nature doesn't descend into campiness. What's also new is the expert use of electronic noises and drumbeats to fatten the sound. Other stunners: the cool, digital "On the Way to the Club", the airy, gorgeous "Sweet Song", and the futuristic bossa nova of "Gene By Gene".
If anything fails on the album, it's Blur's attempt at social commentary, which arguably was once a strong suit. "Brothers and Sisters", a quasi-rap about drug addiction, has a danceable jive but is otherwise a preachy tangent. "Moroccan People's Revolutionary Bowls Club" also, perhaps, takes the cosmopolitan influences a bit too far. It sounds more like Blur mimicking a jam band than Blur doing what is comfortable to them.
Yes, indeed: Blur are all grown up. Now being one of those bands, they've produced one of those albums -- erudite, diverse, multilingual, sometimes confusing. But Think Tank isn't simply a departure. It's also a collage of the best Blur have done. Looking their past squarely in the face, bucking contemporaneous trends and simply going forward -- on Think Tank Blur do this with courage, grace, and maturity. If Blur ain't got nothing to be scared of, neither do you.