Think Tank

(EMI; 2003)

By Amir Nezar | 20 August 2003

Looking through my CD collection, I realize that rarely do I own just the one good album of a generally mediocre band's canon. In other words, I tend not to own the one great CD that a band made if the rest of their work has been relatively crap. Call it a quirk, but I love consistency like I love caramel, which is a lot. There's something supremely comforting about knowing that one of the bands you love will constantly put out good stuff. It also takes, in general, some proof of past and present that indicates a solid basis from which the band can convince you that it's never going to do you wrong. For Radiohead, the revelation that was OK Computer came on the heels of The Bends, a brilliant album in its own right. From then on, with current evidence of the band's greatness backed up by previous evidence of it, I never had to doubt Radiohead. The same goes for Built To Spill, though their ideas seem to be fizzling out now, after four albums. Need I even mention Fugazi?

Of course, intro albums can be works of brilliance as well, and even second albums and third albums, if they represent a progression towards an apex of maturity, pass quite well. But there's nothing so disappointing as owning four of a band's records, and not liking three of them.

Which is why I fucking love Blur. No one needs to be reminded that Parklife was sheer genius. Nor that The Great Escape was an awesome record. In fact, the one (slight) dent in their entire career was their self-titled album, which wasn't pure brilliance, but damn nice anyway. When 13 dropped, there was change in the air; of course, it wasn't just in the wildly experimental side of the band --everyone knew about the bad times between lead man Damon Albarn and superhuman guitarist Graham Coxon. Their last effort (3 years ago!) was a dangerous and brittle affair of creation, with "blood on the floor."

And then, predictably enough, Graham said "fuck you" to Albarn and left. It's not a shock because hey, a great guitarist with a hyper-public-and-self-inflated ego is sure to eventually feel he's not getting his fair say. Albarn, the indomitable Albarn, said, "fine."

Of course, that's not what most of us were thinking. But then it ties back to that whole consistency thing. Blur wasn't consistent because Coxon was wringing thunderstorms out of his guitar; it was because, purely and simply, their songwriting was genius. Coxon was the super-tasty icing on an already brilliant cake. People forgot about Alex James' key basslines, and Dave Rowntree's drumming. So while idiots will immediately denounce this album without listening to it purely because their fantasy-man, Coxon, is gone, the true music-lover will look and say, "Holy shit. So who's Graham Coxon, again?"

That's right. Parklife aside, this is Blur's best album to date (Parklife and this album are different enough in sound to be almost incomparable). Apparently a revelatory trip to Morocco helped. But whatever the source, whether it be Albarn's worldly music travels and soul-searching, or no Coxon-influence, the album is drastically different from anything they've done, and terribly beautiful to boot.

The difference will smack you immediately; no one would recognize the intro drumming machine and bass lead-in from other Blur albums that starts of "Ambulance." Thick, heady sampled voice patterns fill up the vast expanse of background expanse as Albarn croons prophetically "I ain't got nothing to be scared of...'cause I love you..." Harmony-jangling synth hums are mixed in the back, while the background vocals begin to become almost indistinct from Albarn's more impassioned delivery in the upper ranges. All of the elements fuse, drop away, leaving a sampled guitar wail in the background, which then itself drops away to leave Albarn's highly-digitized sampled vocals competing with gospel-like hums, and the entirely wacky bass comes back to inject the fervor back into the mix. Rowntree's drums kick in with cymbal-clashing zeal, and the song, amidst flights of synth and sample vocals, rides itself out. It's lovely shit.

This leads into "Out Of Time," a mournful and solemn restrained dirge pervaded by a minor key and again, that ever-so-important bass. Albarn takes acoustic guitar duties, strumming and plucking alternatively, singing "Where's the love song to set us free?" There are orchestra samples, and synth trembles to flesh out the song, along with the occasional sitar toying around. "Crazy Beat," the third track, is picks up the hearts on the floor when "Out of Time" finishes and brings us back to the Blur days of rocking melody yore, albeit with some ingenious and excellent electronic tweaks. This is the better song that could've come from their self-titled.

But what you'll notice after the adrenaline-rush of "Crazy Beat," is a couple things. First, there is a good ballad aspect of this record that manages to stay wonderfully appropriate, because it's just so damn atypical. The songs tend to take a slower pace, but are certain to keep flawless arrangements together. The effect is a slowing of the frenetic nature of 13 and a condensing of its best elements into a more coherent, well-put together album that stays unbelievably cohesive despite its varying styles and energies. Songs like "Out of Time," "Good Song," "Caravan," and "Jets" are all slower numbers with a lovely lilt and character, while "Ambulance," "On The Way To The Club," and "Battery In Your Leg" explore the more experimental, electronic sides that the band began to develop more centrally in 13, but carries out to smart execution here. Elsewhere "We've Got A File On You" is classic Parklife fare, "Gene by Gene" is in a world of its own, and the rest of the album stays well mapped out in connected though often distinct points. The lyrics have also gotten a makeover. No longer is the focus the ingenious satire that Parklife pulled on its unwitting Brit fans. Instead, there's much more love-oriented, self-oriented contemplation going on. And it's a lot more sincere, and a hell of a lot more tension-free than Blur's other work. In short, the band sounds entirely more confident and loosened in their sound, and it translates gorgeously.

One complaint, and only one--"Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club" is fine, but just not up to par with the atmospheric and technical excellence of the other tracks (and they are just about all uniformly superb). But that's it. With their latest effort Blur are certainly making a bid for Album Of The Year so far, and while Radiohead's Hail To The Thief might, in its official release, still be insuperable, nonetheless these guys already got a top 5 spot clinched, for now. There's gonna have to be some amazing shit coming, to prove me wrong.