Think Tank [EMI]


Graham Coxon's first reaction to listening to Think Tank was noticing how under-produced it was, and it was with that statement that I set out to decide for myself what kind of album Blur have come up with this time. Their eponymous album in '97 marked a distinct crossover into heavier guitar sounds and overt American college rock influences- definitely a greater portion of Coxon's contribution; their following album, 13, saw them spinning off another tangent, this time dabbling into the electronic production of William Orbit, yet still remaining painfully intimate and personal. Considering the varied influences Blur have subject themselves to in the past, this year's Think Tank certainly carries with it a heavy load to bear, from Damon Albarn's distractions with comic project Gorrilaz and more recently, with Mali musicians, to the troubled fiasco which was Coxon's departure.

Indeed, Think Tank is a troubled recording, reflecting a darker life previously never revealed. Coxon's absence is felt strongly in songs like Good Song and On the Way to the Club, which sound shockingly empty. Blur are depleted without Coxon, and they know it, ruefully lamenting in Sweet Song (And now it seems we're falling apart/ But I hope I see the good in you, come back again/ I just believed in you), an earnest plea almost begging for Coxon's return.

Conflicts and strained relationships aside, Think Tank nonetheless excels, building on from the intimacy and emotion embraced in 13, but exploring even more diverse outlets. Not afraid to immerse themselves in ambient sounds, crazed loops, jazzed arrangements, or even funky eastern rhythms, Blur continues to take on their journey of re-invention.

Recorded in Morocco, the band got some help from the local musicians, who assembled the orchestra for Out of Time, the first single off the album. A wistful soul-searcher, it allows Damon's warm vocals to shine through - in fact, Damon gives his voice a greater freedom: to peak, to crack, to resonate, to fade away. The local influence is even more noticeable in other songs like Jets which is given an almost Middle-Eastern outfit that ends very sweetly with Mike Smith's saxophone.

We are given a glimpse into their edgier, spunkier side as well, in the immensely catchy Crazy Beat (slated for release as the second single), splattered with kick-ass loops. We've got a File on You, strays more to punk territory, but is equally successful in capturing the energy at that point. Reminiscent of Globe Alone and B.L.U.R.E.M.I., it's a snapshot of Blur losing themselves in the moment.

Blur are not afraid to propel themselves in a new direction, even if it means leaving their fan-base even more confused than ever. They tried it out in Blur and 13, and somehow those albums have given them the confidence to carry it on in Think Tank. They might have outdone themselves this time, with Think Tank ending up without a discernable focus, but it seems more like a result of confused arrangement from their myriad of producers, from Ben Hillier to William Orbit and Norman Cook. Not exactly under-production at fault here - more of a lack of direction that lets down an earnest and commendable effort.

Coxon's departure has evidently paved the way to a wider musical scope, but it has definitely left an unsettled feeling in the album that would have been otherwise complete. - Daniel Tham

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