Blur

Think Tank

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As Blur commenced recording on Think Tank, their seventh album, things got a little weird. Tensions between vocalist/songwriter Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon reached a boiling point following Albarn's success with his dance-oriented side project, Gorillaz, leading him to assert dominance over the band, all of which was at odds with a newly sober and somber Coxon, whose solo records were doggedly designed to appeal to small audiences. According to most press reports, the breaking point was Albarn bringing Fatboy Slim in for production work in Morocco (it's hard to write those words without believing them to be parody), leading toward Coxon's acrimonious departure and the turgid mess that is Think Tank. Given the Gorillaz and Fatboy Slim (who, after all the brouhaha, only produced two tracks) connections, it's easy to assume that Albarn is pushing Blur toward a heavy, heavy dance album, which isn't strictly true, partially because the band always have traded in alternative dance. Still, there's been a shift in approach. Where they used to use disco and house beats as a foundation (see "Girls and Boys" or "Entertain Me"), Blur now borrow modern dance's fondness, even reliance, on atmosphere over song and structure -- which is kind of ironic, of course, since the group have always excelled at song and structure in the past. In the post-Coxon era, all that's tossed aside as Albarn turns his attention to electronic art-rock as thin as a dime. Make no mistake, even if bassist Alex James and Dave Rowntree are along for the ride, this is the sound of Albarn run amuck, a (perhaps inevitable) development that even voracious Blur supporters secretly feared could ruin the band -- and it has. Why? Because Albarn's talents cry out for a collaborator. He has great ideas but he needs help not just in the execution, but sorting out what ideas are good. The problem is, he's charismatic enough to coast by on his book smarts and good looks, until somebody -- Coxon, Stephen Street, Dan the Automator -- calls him into check, and now that he's had enough success, he's convinced he can do it on his own. So, Think Tank is the Damon Show, and it reveals that the emperor has no clothes or sense. Apart from the fine, deliberate opening gambit of "Ambulance" and "Out of Time" -- the first a perfectly arranged, ominously lush mood piece; the other a hushed, melancholic elegy in the same vein as "To the End" and "Tender," though not as good as either -- Think Tank sounds for all the world exactly like Blur B-sides from Parklife to Blur, complete with the hiccupping analog synths and meandering instrumentals, but without the sense of songcraft and with less imaginative arrangements (remember, elastic codas with a noodling saxophone line do not equal experimental; it's lazy focus). Those songs that do sound more substantial than B-sides are severely hurt by Coxon's absence: Witness the pleasantly sweet "Good Song," built on a Pro-Tools acoustic guitar loop which drains the song of emotion, when Graham would have let the song breathe, or how the creepy crawl of "Battery in Your Leg" winds up eating its own tail through its hermetically sealed arrangement. These problems all derive from one simple thing -- since Albarn has nobody to challenge him, he's unwittingly pawning off an album of half-baked demos and unfinished B-sides. And this isn't the result of a musical departure, unless you count the departure of songwriting -- this is the sound of Blur without the hooks, smarts, tunes, or even the sense of adventure. Sure, it might be easier to accept if it was called a Damon Albarn solo album, but that's splitting hairs. A lousy album is a lousy album, no matter who gets credit.

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