BLUR: THINK TANK (2003)
1) Ambulance; 2) Out Of Time; 3) Crazy Beat; 4) Good Song; 5) On The Way To The Club; 6) Brothers And Sisters; 7) Caravan; 8) We've Got A File On You; 9) Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club; 10) Sweet Song; 11) Jets; 12) Gene By Gene; 13) Battery In Your Leg.
Put it this way: Blur without Graham Coxon is like The Rolling Stones without Keith Richards. You wouldn't totally want to deny Mick Jagger the right to create good music without his druggy-dreary pal (and he did create some good music on his own), but it wouldn't be Rolling Stones music unless he'd manage to dig out Keith Richards' identical twin on guitar. As for Damon Albarn — not only did he not bother at all about digging out Graham Coxon's identical twin, but he pretty much decided that Blur's next album would be all right with no guitar at all, or, at least, as little of it as possible. Who ever laid down the law about each new Blur album having to be guitar-based, anyway? Nothing about that in the recording contract, for sure.
The real problem with Think Tank, however, is not that it is not a «proper Blur album»: the real problem is that it is simply not a very good album, period. The Albarn/Coxon relationship was, in fact, very similar to the Jagger/Richards one in that the former partner brought in the «coolness» and the latter brought in the meat'n'potatoes. Now that there is no more meat'n'potatoes, it turns out, somehow, that «coolness», on its own, results in much more confusion than admiration. Think Tank may very well have been designed in a think tank indeed — it sizzles and bursts with creativity-a-plenty, nary a single track following in the shoes of any preceding one — but as «creative» as these compositions are, most of them are fairly meaningless, designed just for the purpose of sitting there and looking cool.
Interestingly, two out of three singles culled from the album had some of its least experimental and «tamest» songs as A-sides: ʽOut Of Timeʼ and ʽGood Songʼ are soft rhythmic ballads, showcasing Damon's tender-and-gentle side and even featuring a romantic Spanish guitar solo passage on the former. Actually, ʽOut Of Timeʼ has become one of the few songs here to endure, later to be incorporated into the regular Blur setlist with Graham returning — still I am not impressed, what with the rather primitive melody and Damon's inability to forge out a proper hook (even if the "you haven't found the time... to open up your mind" bit seems like an explicit melodic quotation from ʽMr. Tambourine Manʼ). It is curious, though, that with all the «crazy» ideas explored on the album, the maximum promotion was allocated for its easily-accessible, sentimental bits: apparently, Albarn cares a lot about the «crooner» side of his image.
The second single, however, was ʽCrazy Beatʼ, and it is horrible. I used to think the guttural-electronic "crazy beat, crazy beat, crazy beat yeah yeah yeah" bits were a parody on Crazy Frog, but apparently, the infantile Crazy Frog phenomenon only arose about half a year after Think Tank hit the stores, so we will have to assume it was Albarn's own folly. The song borrows the cool-arrogant-bastard attitude of Parklife and wastes it in a setting punctuated with hyper-moronic embellishments (intentionally ugly harmonies, guitars, and electronics) — I mean, at least ʽSong 2ʼ was honestly funny, and straightforwardly parodic, but ʽCrazy Beatʼ just has this "let's go CRAAAZY!" vibe, unfunny, mean, and manipulative. Without knowing for sure, I bet it must have been a real big hit in the clubs, but that does not make it any less stupid, only more harmful.
Most of the other tracks follow in the «crazy» footsteps of ʽCrazy Beatʼ, though, thankfully, few reach that level of annoyance. For ultra-extra-hipness, Albarn drove the band to Marrakesh, where they hooked up with local musicians to add a pinch of «world music» — something I have barely noticed upon first listen, to be honest, because it just does not feel as if all the elements of Britpop, electronica, and Eastern music mesh in naturally. Maybe it's all about the poorness of the mix, where frequently there is a lot of stuff happening in the background, but it all sounds like noisy garbage, or, at best, like distant echoes. Instead of «colorful», the entire record has this dirty-gray feel of the album cover, irritating and alienating rather than intriguing and mystifying. Some critics have called Think Tank «warm» and «inviting» — personally, I feel it's about as warm and inviting as a sheetmetal factory, but hey, some people like to be invited to sheetmetal factories. Get a taste of real life and all that.
Some of the grooves are nicely somber, like the R&B exercise of ʽBrothers And Sistersʼ (still spoiled by completely gratuitous electronic trickery), and some of the combinations work, like the lo-fi kiddie melody of ʽJetsʼ exchanging phrasing with its overweight, grumbly, distorted bassline (but why six minutes? why the out-of-nowhere sax solo?). In fact, as I said, almost every song has at least some creative idea in its favor, which is why I cannot bring myself to condemning the record. But on the whole, it is an absolute triumph of form over substance — as if with the departure of Coxon, the band pretty much lost its soul. They retained the will to experiment — in fact, they have developed a crazier drive for experimentation than ever — but they forgot that experimentation has to have a purpose, and even more so in the 21st century, when «crazy stuff for the sake of sheer craziness» has pretty much become a boring cliché. As time goes by, I feel less and less interested in Think Tank, when all the previous Blur albums still retain their freshness and vitality to a certain degree. So much for «hipness» in all its glory.