Blur: Think Tank

Three years ago, it seemed like a good time to start talking about the end of Blur. The decade that the band's music helped define had drawn to a close, a greatest-hits disc was in stores, rumors circulated of problems within the group, guitarist Graham Coxon kept putting out solo albums, and singer Damon Albarn seemed a little distracted. Most tellingly, 1999's 13 sounded like the type of record that bands make at the end of their careers. After the arch poppiness of Blur's early work gave way to the indie-rock experimentation of its self-titled 1997 album, 13 had the band-falling-apart-in-the-studio vibe of Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers. It worked, but the disc's extreme disjointedness seemed to leave Blur, as one song title suggested, with no distance left to run. So Think Tank arrives as a welcome surprise, even though it comes with casualties: Reportedly a strife-filled affair, its production saw the departure of Coxon, who appears only on the final track. It's little wonder that Think Tank often sounds like a sequel to 13, with the threat of disintegration partially realized even before most of the songs had been recorded. In Blur's downtime, Albarn has played at electronic-music wizardry (with Gorillaz) and world-music compilations (with Mali Music), and the influences of both show up in Think Tank's weird mélange, in which loops compete with live instruments and styles rub against one another with abandon. Fatboy Slim even turns up for two tracks, joined by what sounds like a deranged midget on "Crazy Beat," a poundingly ingratiating track that ought to become a stadium staple alongside the woo-hoos of "Song 2." Still, the haunted vibe of "Ambulance" better establishes the mood, with Albarn stubbornly insisting, "I ain't got nothing to be scared of" as one unexpected sound joins the mix after another, as if the band were attempting to use everything but Coxon's guitar. Lovely, nervous ballads like "Out Of Time," "Good Song," and "Sweet Song" alternate with vibrant experimentation as Think Tank works its way toward a final, elegiac standout, the Coxon contribution "Battery In Your Leg." "This is a ballad for the good times," Albarn sings, as the group winds down another album that sounds like a fitting cap to its career with a song that does the same. If it is the end, Blur has gone out kicking as always.

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