Blur
Think Tank
Virgin
2003
A-



an offbeat rhythmic synapse that nearly collapses into itself begins the album. Heavy electronic drums. A flash. A kick. At first, it’s really hard to believe that this is a song, functioning on its own. The beat needs crutches to stand upright. As a low, thunderous bass enters your speakers, the whole thing slowly grows. Distinctive African percussion is leisurely incorporated into the bass overtone—it’s the darkness in a thunderstorm, the pure, simple fury that comes before a glorious lightning streak.


And then you hear the falsetto. As saxes barely pop their heads in over the entangled rhythm and multiple voices, Damon Albarn claims:


I ain’t got nothin’ to be scared of / no I ain’t got nothin’ to be scared of, no / No I ain’t got anything to be afraid of / ‘cause I love you.


As the last line is wistfully dropped from Albarn’s lips, the gates suddenly open, and an illustrious, otherworldly wave of synthesizer floods the song’s deathly stomp. But within this death there is love. Albarn makes this clear in the structure of this song and throughout an album that could and would be a fitting finale for one of the rock era’s greatest bands.


The gospel sounds that opened 13—Blur’s previous album, released nearly four years ago—have now become a neo-futurist space ballad whose chords grow thicker and denser with each passing second and tell you that Blur indeed has "nothing to be scared of.” “Tender,” the first track on 13 features the line "Love’s the greatest thing that we have / I’m waiting for that feeling to come." On Think Tank’s opener, “Ambulance,” Albarn is no longer waiting—he’s simply content and unafraid.


I was born out of love / It’s the only way to come into this world / I’m know I’m not over / But I’m getting getting getting there / If you let me live my life / I’ll stay with you ‘til the end/ and I know, I’m nearly dead / I want to tell you this


And it’s not what Albarn has to say to you—but how. Because the moment where the entire song, building to one huge climax, suddenly drops out for a moment of what can only be described as utter clarity, only to return stronger than ever, tells anyone all they ever need to know about everything this band will ever feel. That despite everything this band is alive. And with the assurance of life, there is love. And with love, there is faith- faith in the power of a band, faith in the power of music, faith in the power of Blur. It is a belief, having faith- it is God. It is everything God is- pain, love, desperation, glory, mistakes, reflection, faith— but more than anything, it’s about the glory of love. The knowledge it is over, and yet, it is all beginning.


Graham Coxon was once the best friend of Damon Albarn, whose very first words to him were an insult regarding his shoes. Their musical partnership forged the best band of the 1990s, perhaps only because of the tension the two shared. While Albarn always tried to do more—becoming more experimental on 13, dabbling in the lite-dub of Gorillaz—Coxon remained the one who wanted Blur to remain a pure band...and he didn’t want to put up with Albarn’s indulgences. While Coxon was rewarded with the subversive brilliance of Blur—widely acknowledged as "Graham’s American album"—the tension between the two remained and resulted throughout Blur’s career in the tempering of Albarn’s idealistic vision of what the band could become to Coxon’s vision of what the band should be.


Think Tank features only one song co-written and recorded with Coxon. The group’s second heartbeat is now gone, and it makes for a significant difference in the band’s sound. So it should go without saying that this album belongs chiefly to Albarn, who is now free to indulge in many things that likely would have been left unexplored with Coxon in tow. Most observers feel Albarn’s influence is chiefly felt in the album’s dance/dub sound and the removal of Coxon’s quality control is one reason why there is an obvious lack of flow to the album. Perhaps, either or both are true. But the biggest difference between Albarn and Coxon isn’t that one is as fascinated with Lee Perry as the other is with Thurston Moore or that one desires pop hits while the other was scared to death when Blur hit No. 1 on the UK Singles Chart. Damon Albarn is love. Graham Coxon is pain.


Albarn understands the glory of love. He knows its wondrous heights. All of his songs have been about love in some form or another—he loves to hate co-eds in "Girls and Boys," he loves the fact that love brings everyone together in "For Tomorrow." True, he has pop sensibilities, but he also has love and he believes in it. This record was born out of love for music, for the sound that he has in his head.


Coxon knows pain is the darkest feeling of all and the beauty that can be mined from its depths. In "Tender," the melancholy in a intensely dejected guitar solo comes after the realization that "I’m waiting for that feeling [love] to come." Albarn’s most somber emotional track to date ("1992") explored the disintegration of his love affair, but it was Coxon who best articulated the pain. Coxon’s guitar solo seems like an attempt to wrangle the power and the love and the despair and the complete...ending...of everything. To Graham, everything is pain. Even his most beloved attempt to write about love, "You’re So Great," isn’t about "you’re so great and I love you," but about a sad wandering drunk in an empty town waiting for day.


And now Coxon remains in the dark while the rest of Blur—Albarn, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree—return after four years and, with “nothing to be scared of,” step into the day. Albarn, the ringleader, realizes love is the greatest thing that we have. And this album is about that realization. This is an album about being unafraid, about death, about the end, about chaos, about mistakes, reflection, pain, God—but more than anything, it’s about the glory of love. It’s about every aspect of love, and the knowledge that the pain it brings is ultimately less than the joy it allows you to feel. Albarn says the album’s music and lyrics are about "love and politics." Bullshit. They are only tangentially related to politics. It is, instead, far more focused on the intense, ridiculous, heavenly fervor of love- an amazing look into one man’s love, and the pain he might experience—but more importantly, the joy he feels.


True, Think Tank is flawed. There are many, many things wrong with this album. The band clumsily fools with ProTool looping on more than one occasion. "Jets," which begins with a throaty bassline, continues on a snarky and mysterious road for four minutes before taking an abrupt turn and concluding with two minutes of free jazz. There is no flow to this album. The hollow commercialism of "Crazy Beat" immediately follows the yearning love song of "Out Of Time," which in turn is followed by a slow-moving white-soul number and after that comes a Neu!-influenced trip-hop breakdown. And "We’ve Got A File On You"—the most rocking punk thrash of Blur’s career—barely makes it to the one-minute mark, which is a shame. Its massive, head-smacking guitar rev and Eastern cantillation intertwined make for a hell of a ride.


But the record’s peaks are extraordinary: The chaos that surrounds the heartbeat which colors every moment of this album, the slow electronic bleeps, the heading into an intense squall of love and death and the end of everything love begats is bigger and more profound than the music. The ridiculous climax, with gospel singers, hand claps, squeaky bed samples, "Train In Vain" falsetto’s, and glitchy keyboards of a dance-pop song like "Gene By Gene," produced by Fatboy Slim, hints at it. "On The Way To The Club"’s incredible organ breakdown at the end of a trip-hop beat hints at it. The shift from "John Lee Hooker to Grandmaster Flash," as Albarn describes "Brothers and Sisters," smacks you on the head with its enveloping electro-funk groove, and descent into chaos. The sweet lo-fi vintage keyboard breaks of "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club" give tastes of a glorious noise amidst a mess.


On this record, Albarn cleans out his closet and tries everything he has ever wanted to: free-jazz, trip-hop, vocoders, Fatboy Slim dance beats, ProTooled guitar loops, heavy flirtations with electronic drums and Eurotrash dance beats. And maybe that’s why Think Tank is about being an underdog. It’s funny to think of worldwide superstars Blur in that role, but it’s true. This could be the final heave-ho to the end of a glorious career for this very reason. Sure, their faults litter the scene, but mistakes are overshadowed by moments of utter greatness and lucidity, ones when Blur tells you "this is who we are. This is who we were. This is what we can do. Take it or leave it." The unexpected wildness of the album—messy, unfocused and, at times, horridly lazy—is a metaphor for Blur’s career.


And perhaps how better for it to close than "Battery In Your Leg," the one song on which Coxon appears? A wash of guitar sweeps over the mournful piano stomp, and though Damon says "this is a ballad for the good times," it means more than he ever knows it will. True, it could be perceived as being about Coxon—that would seem the obvious answer—an ode to everything they once had. So the album closes with a reflection, and begins with a look to the future. In between, Think Tank may be the sound of a band ending—slowly—over the course of an entire album. And once they hit the end, it’s goodbye and congratulations.


The lyrics on this album are often irrelevant—Albarn pleading "my eyes aren’t blue / there’s nothing I can do" means nothing. It’s just more sonic texture for the band, the realization that love isn’t what you say, it’s what you feel. Phil Daniels, who narrated Parklife’s title track, makes this point all too clear. Save for a few lines, his spoken-word monologue on “Me, White Noise” is all but swallowed under a massive Eurotrash dance beat—the most thrilling musical adventure of Blur’s career. "Me, White Noise" is a hidden bonus track, perversely, at the beginning of this album. It would have made more sense to put it at the end, because really, it is "post-." Not post-Blur. Not post-apocalypse, not post-chaos, not post-Britpop, but post-everything.


The mumble is just part of the music, the feel.


Daniels begins narrating over a greasy stomp, like a drunkard who has seen everything, and lived to tell about it. It’s after the end to him, and his delivery seems to rile the band on, challenging them to fight his claims, that all is shit, and Blur is done.


After everything—after Think Tank’s journey to the very end of the band’s limits—I ‘m confident that Blur has done it. "What does the wall say to you?" Daniels orders. So now that they’ve hit it, what does it say? That faith has triumphed in the end of this ordeal? Or that they’re done---that Blur is finished.


And you move, move, move, move / and then you push, push, push, pushAnd you trip over yourself and you say to yourself / ‘Why am I here? I’m here because I’ve got no fucking choice!’


Albarn returns to the track, shouting and fighting against not Daniels, but everyone. Everyone who said they couldn’t do it, that Blur would never come back without Coxon. The beat builds, as a Krautdrone becomes a guitar shred, over and over and over. Blur realizes their backs are against the wall, and now it’s time. Now is when Think Tank truly communicates to you that this is the album of the band’s career.


And furthermore, furthermore / you’re boring! You’re boring! You’re boring! You’re boring!


Suddenly, everything is wrong, everything is right. The wash comes over the song, looping Albarn’s vocal over and over into oblivion as James and Rowntree knock the beat, the album’s heartbeat, the very presence of Blur’s life far gone and out.


Can we stop now? Can we stop now? Can we stop now? Can stop now? Please?


They’ve won, you see. Blur has returned strong, even with their backs against the figurative wall. Whenever the band is close to being done for, they come back. They have it in them. And this forceful track grabs you and shakes you and destroys everything you ever thought a simple pop band could ever do. Albarn and Daniels chant together, with one’s hope for life defiantly killing the other. By the end, Daniels is a mess, falling over himself: “you wretched ... I’ve lived all my fucking life ... if I had a gun, I’d use it.”


That’s what this album is. A fight. Blur’s out to prove that they’ve won. That in the end, despite this surely being the last album they will ever make, Think Tank is a rally, a call to arms, a fight for the ages. They’ve pushed the limit—and the climaxes of each and every song show it. That’s why in “Sweet Song,” a track built around a lazy piano loop ends with a rush into electronic beeps and clicks and a chord progression through the roof. That’s why every song builds, every song ends with an amazing climax. Why the best part of each and every track on this album is the very end. Because after the battle, the victory is greater than the losses.


And really, isn’t that what faith is? A fight? A fight against everything that says it’s not true, but in the end, holding on for something you know that is so right and so true? A belief that you can? That God exists --- and that everything so right in this world is from that one faith? And ... isn’t that what love is? For all of its struggles, for all of the wrong in it, there is so much right. Once you win --- once you find love, that’s it. And that’s what Think Tank is. Love.Because the beauty of love and the beauty of accomplishment always wins, when you give everything you have to love and get love in return. Because Think Tank is love. Because for me to admit that my favorite band ever has to stop, well, that’s love too.


Reviewed by: Sam Bloch
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01
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