Saturday, February 12, 2011

Blur: Think Tank (2003)


(Virgin)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Sometimes the last album a band records before it descends into a murky "hiatus" zone is the ideal climax and ending to its story; could there ever really be an effective followup to Loveless or In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? On the other hand, the sole LP appearance this past decade of Britpop kings Blur is such a tantalizing left turn and so bursting with potential it has managed to make their absence increasingly painful every year since. It's not that Think Tank is their best work -- though I would argue it trumps their prior two records -- but that it seems to begin a strong and woefully unfinished tale of a band just starting to realize the depth of its creative ability. Damon Albarn's imagination and restlessness seem undiminished even this far in, and Blur remains a stronger backbone for his flights of fancy than his other projects. But if they end up leaving us with this as their finale, at least it's a strong closing statement.

Exactly one track on Think Tank doesn't work: "Crazy Beat," a silly and annoying earworm that nevertheless illustrates precisely what is impressive about the LP below the surface. Albarn's largeness of personality reveals a constant impulse to push ever harder. "Crazy Beat" is obnoxious like certain older Blur tracks, including the inescapable "Song 2," but more so. Returning to Blur for the first time after the sky's-the-limit nuttiness of the Gorillaz project, Albarn seems unwilling to tone anything down, which is great for the album but perhaps rough going for the rest of the band; Graham Coxon's career with Blur ended during the sessions.

Much more important is the penchant for "pretty" that has never been so strong on a Blur album and lends itself to some of the most valuable and heartfelt moments in an illustrious career. The slight drone and menace of "Out of Time" slowly pull apart to reveal a reflective melody so shatteringly lovely it could make you involuntarily bow down like you once did to "The Universal," only responding now to a whole different region of feeling. The band brings itself together just as impressively on the swimmingly moving duo of "Good Song" and "Sweet Song," two of Blur's best-ever moments, both brimming with emotion and Beach Boy harmonies, neither overreaching but both overcome with the Kinks-esque out-of-reachness of all desirable and free-setting things. Even if "Good Song" isn't the best song he will ever write, which it may be, Albarn's vocal on it is his peak as a performer.

Superficially, Think Tank travels beyond the lo-fi and rhythmic experiments of late-'90s Blur and offers some excursions into worldbeat. These textures come across strongest on the heavy, atmospheric opener "Ambulance," which brings to mind Peter Gabriel's "Intruder" with its quiet, tense urgency. Fans of the other '80s heavyweight (besides Paul Simon) to catapult African music into the mainstream, Talking Heads, will appreciate "Brothers and Sisters" and particularly the seemingly direct tribute "On the Way to the Club." Still, these all tend to be eclipsed by the Afro-disco of "Moroccan People's Revolution" specifically due to its reprisal of Blur's unabashed Britishness; they even go so far as to proclaim "Being English isn't about hate, it's about disgust" against the wickedest of thumping beats.

It's difficult to deny that the most joyous (and relieving) Blur moment on Think Tank may be the balls-out punk rock explosion of "We've Got a File on You," replete with Colin Newman shouts, which takes barely a minute to offset the rest of the album's excursions with its hit to the jugular. Still, a band with (by 2003) such elder-statesmen sway amping up the weirdness like this is a fairly ballsy move in itself. So does effectively (but not officially) disbanding after such a transitional album, which continues to make the hope for a Think Tank sequel hard to kill. Last year's "Fool's Day" proves they've still got the gift; perhaps someday soon they'll decide to treat us with another complete piece of the puzzle.

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