Blur was once considered the best UK band of the 1990s. No mean feat, considering the bands that claimed that title from previous decades (Smiths, Cure, New Order, Sex Pistols, Clash, Jam, Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Zeppelin, Floyd). They had hooks, chops, style, attitude and looks. If they were a baseball team, they’d be five tool players, something to which very few bands can lay claim. Hell, the Sex Pistols kicked a guy out of the band because he knew too much (Beatles chords, to be precise). Chops can be overrated. Ask the B-52’s.
But Blur could do practically anything. They released three of the best albums of the 1990s, all within a span of about two years. Their “Life” trilogy (1993’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, 1994’s Parklife 1995’s The Great Escape) made them the It Band. Parklife alone was one of the most diverse pop records of all time, flipping from New Wave to punk to psychedelia to music hall to mersey beat, nearly back to back. They made themselveseven more attractive in 1997 when they ditched their Union Jack-waving Brit Pop sound for raw American lo-fi and a little “Woo hoo” on their eponymous fifth album. The world, it seemed, was their oyster.
And then, just when the American success that had eluded them all these years was finally going to come their way, tensions within the band started to boil over. Guitarist Graham Coxon was both a ferocious boozer and a reluctant popster, constantly trying to push the band into rather uncommercial directions. (Listen to his solo albums, if you dare.) They sacked producer Stephen Street, widely considered Blur’s fifth member and as important to the band’s success as George Martin was to the Beatles. Their 1999 album 13, according to new producer William Orbit, was the sound of “blood on the studio floor.” He wasn’t kidding; if anything exemplified a band on the verge of a murder-suicide, 13 was it. The success of singer Damon Albarn’s cartoon spin-off band Gorillaz in 2001 didn’t help matters, either. Now it was Blurthat was viewed as his vanity project, and Coxon, displeased by Blur’s new “tech-y” direction, left the band. Suddenly, it all seems so trivial.
So what fills the gap of a brilliant guitarist like Coxon? Blur earn moxie points because they did the only thing they could do: They didn’t replace Coxon. Rather, they made a record that sounds as if Coxon never existed in the band. Mostly. Think Tank, Blur’s first record since 13, bears little resemblance to any of its predecessors. Albarn said he wanted to write songs more in the Parklife vein, but the end results sound more like Radiohead than anything Blur’s ever done. It’s a massive sonic makeover. It’s also terribly melancholy. Blur may have inner peace after the departure of Coxon, but Think Tank slightly suffers for it.
Leadoff track “Ambulance” sets the table pretty well for what’s to come. Somber drums lead to spooky backing vocals and Damon saying, if not feeling, “No I ain’t got nothing to be scared of/I love you.” A fat bass keyboard riff and shimmery dream pop guitar, the sort of thing My Bloody Valentine would do on a rainy day, fill in the cracks. “Out of Time” is a beautiful Spanish-tinged ballad with one of the finest vocals Albarn’s ever done.
And then there’s “Crazy Beat,” the album’s first single and one of two mixed by Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook (whose inclusion was one of the reasons Coxon left the band). With a driving drum beat and an odd Donald Duck-on-ludes vocal hook, it’s a delicious slice of “Song 2”-esque blistering guitar anchored by a very over-produced rhythm section. The one-minute “We’ve Got a File on You” is their latest speed rocker entry (see “Bank Holiday,” “Globe Alone,” “Chinese Bombs,” “B.L.U.R.E.M.I.”) and contains a snake charmer vocal in the break that sounds like an outtake from “Clint Eastwood.” These two songs are the only high-energy moments to be found. Anyone looking for a bunch of “Crazy Beat”’s should think twice.
“Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club” may not roll off the tongue, but it’s one of the best songs here. In fact, it’s the funkiest thing Blur’s ever done, proof that you can take Damon out of the Gorillaz, but can’t take the Gorillaz out of Damon. Closing number “Battery In Your Leg” is a heartbreaking farewell to Coxon (it’s also the only song to feature Coxon), and his final appearance in Blur is a memorable one, a haunting mellow surf guitar riff that hangs in the air a few minutes after the song ends.
Think Tank is going to do a lot of things for Blur, though they may not all be good things. They’re forcing their fans to look at them in broader terms, which is what all good bands do, but it will likely splinter the fan base somewhat. Shedding the Brit Pop label can only help them, but the morose material is sure to keep them from getting any significant foothold on radio. It’s best to hope that Think Tank is the result of the most extreme of circumstances, and that next time around, they’ll be more focused. They’re still a band to be reckoned with, but they’re not quite the force they used to be.
Other Blur reviews:
Park Life (1994)