Review: Blur – Think Tank (Special Edition)
Published on July 17th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Blur’s most recent album is now almost ten years old. Damn. Coxonless for all but one track, Think Tank arrived when Damon Albarn was already well into beat territory having dropped the eponymous Gorillaz debut album two years previously. Suffice it to say, this is Blur’s most electronic album, but in a way it had to be to compensate for the loss of Graham Coxon’s inspired noise-making. Nevertheless, 2003’s Think Tank contains some of the most upliftingly soulful material put out under the band’s name.
“Ambulance” arrives with whirring noises infesting a jerky, shuffling beat before flourishing into an open, shimmering production, like a 13 song gone travelling round the world. “I ain’t got nothing to be scared of, no” sings Albarn in this post-Coxon environment, evidently set on not allowing the bad vibes to bleed into the music with lines like “I was born out of love / It’s the only way to come into this world”. That big, fizzy, felty synth bass is impossible to resist, but then it all sounds wonderful.
Incidentally, does “I ain’t got nothing to be scared of, no” count as a triple negative?
“Out of Time” deserves to be amongst the select band of Blur songs that everyone knows: it’s simply exquisite, Damon’s vocal performance so divinely measured while snatches of a Morroccan orchestra ghost up through the mix, making the production feel positively endless in scope. The little elements overlapping each other deep in the mix add up to sheer, twinkly splendour, and when the second verse takes flight on “Feel the sunshiiiine on your face” it’s like a volcanic eruption of liquid sunshine that seeps into every pore of the song around it.
“Crazy Beat”: worthy successor to “Song 2” or irritating toss-off? This Norman ‘Fatboy’ Cook-produced single sure straddles a fine line but it’s good, thrashy fun that ain’t preaching, and Rocksucker had never realised until googling the lyrics just now that the second verse goes “I’m on my mobile and I’m talking to the president / I got to get him for the money I’ve spent / Trying to get him to party with me / And even offered him ecstasy”. That definitely helps its cause, in contrast with the fact that it’s flanked by two of the best songs in the Blur oeuvre, the Blur-vre if you will.
“Good Song” is every bit as sweet, tender and sun-kissed as “Out of Time”. Although it passed by largely unnoticed when it was released as Think Tank‘s third single, it’s the kind of stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks ballad that Albarn had gone too long without producing until “Under the Westway” showed up. Its slow, shuffly groove, addictive swipes of acoustic guitar and contemplative lyrics add up to an ambience that sounds weary but not downcast, and the falsetto “It’s the rest of my life…” section is quietly spine-tingling. Rocksucker doesn’t care what anyone says, this is one of the best songs with Blur’s name on it.
“On the Way to the Club” is like “Ambulance” meets “Death of a Party”, its magical chorus of “I just want to be, darling, with you / The music’s made that way / My eyes are blue, there’s nothing I can do” so bewitchingly familiar, so gosh darn right-sounding. Fizzy bass and Dave Rowntree’s drums – he apparently also contributed electric guitar to this track – enter to give it all a satisfying hop, gorgeous harmonies on the second chorus lead the song into breaking point, upon which we are flung into a twinkly yet ominous swirl of keyboards underpinned by a subtle but totally badass Alex James bassline that holds it all together.
That Think Tank is the only Blur album to get the Parental Advisory logo owes itself to “Brothers and Sisters”, a groovy north African swagger that doubles up as a glossary of recreational drugs. It’s a good Blur song rather than a great one, but with its farty synth and Albarn’s lascivious delivery it is a fine thing to have around nonetheless. “Caravan” is another to feel like a less depressed 13 number, a ‘children’s audio book’ effect on Albarn’s voice, handclaps and clicks some of which may be digital and some organic, and again a chorus of understated beauty (“And when it comes, you’ll feel the weight of it”). A gorgeous harmonising melodica section and the downbeat music hall la la las at the end make this quite the ornate little production, establishing a mood which is promptly shredded by the thrashy, shout-along, Tarantino-tinged, just-over-a-minute-long fun of “We’ve Got a File on You”.
“Surely we will disappear” concludes Albarn on “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club”, and for a good while they did. Rowntree’s ace clattering drum fills catch the ear here but ultimately this is to be filed alongside “Brothers and Sisters” in the ‘enjoyable but hardly essential’ file. Still, it keeps proceedings ticking over nicely and adds to the rich spread of luxuriant colours available on Think Tank.
“Sweet Song”, supposedly written about the band’s fallout with Coxon (the lyrics would seem to corroborate this), does good by its title with its musical depiction of clear, softly rippling water, another beautifully tender (arf!) Albarn vocal the icing on the ‘perfect for unwinding to’ cake. There’s not much to say about this other than it’s bloody lovely, and sometimes that really is enough. Although clocking in at over six minutes, “Jets” just a bit of a groove, really, notable for James’s ace distorted bass heaves and a saxophone – presumably not Coxon’s – unloading all over its less-malevolent-“Essex Dogs” palette and hushed, repeated refrain of “Jets are like comets at sunset”.
“I ride a bullet like Steve McQueen” – a double-edged reference to The Great Escape in more ways than one? In any case, “Gene By Gene” is a brilliant slice of super-catchy, bratty silliness, an effective microcosm of which comes in the form of the ultra-daft bo bo bo vocables that follow Albarn’s declaration of “I delete myself”, which for the record Rocksucker had always heard as “I could eat myself” until checking just now. We get creaking interjections of what sounds like a rusty seesaw, a breezily instant winner of a chorus and an utterly splendid plastic string section descending at the end, and while some may dismiss “Gene By Gene” as disposable nonsense it conceivably would have been an obvious choice of single for most other bands.
“Battery In Your Leg” is the only album track to feature Coxon, his usual guitar stylings drenched in reverb/echo, rendering them vast-sounding and swoonsomely complementary to the clear, watery production and pointed lyric of “This is a ballad for the good times…”. Indeed it feels like a precursor to the two new songs; you have to hope they make an full album because it really could be phenomenal
“Me, White Noise” is included at the end here so you don’t have to rewind from the beginning as on the original CD release, and it still sounds magnificent: Phil Daniels is back, this time with a more foul-mouthed tirade against the world as his croaky, rubbery synth bass accomplice cranks up the levels of sheer sordid malice to the extent that it all explodes into blaring looped vocaldom.
“Money Makes Me Crazy (Marrakech Mix)” is one of Blur’s finest outtakes, like a poppier “Music is My Radar”, too light-hearted and chirpy perhaps to have sat well on the album but with such sunnily exotic harmonies that you might be having too much fun to notice that Albarn is all but spelling out the band’s imminent hiatus with lines such as “I wanna be left alone / On a holiday / And never do the things I’ve done again / They make me crazy”.
“Tune 2″ – talk about self-parody, eh? – is cool, shuffly noodling with exotic instrumentation (yes, that’s journo speak for ‘I don’t know what those things are called”), bongos and a murmured Albarn vocal, while the Coxon-featuring “The Outsider” expands on the hints of ‘Tarantino soundtrack’ that showed up on “We’ve Got a File on You” – it’s paranoid, menacing and definitlely wouldn’t have fit on album but it’s strong B-side material regardless.
The funky baritone sax of ends up lulling you in to something fairly unremarkable, the avec-Coxon “Morricone” introduces yet more rolling bongos and ‘exotic instrumentation’ to those murmured Albarn vocal, this time adding up to a nicely brooding little tune that sounds as if it would have emerged from a jam. “Me, White Noise (Alternate Version)” sees Albarn handling the snarling spoken word over a loping, vaguely clubby beat. “Why am I here?” Because Phil Daniels hasn’t shown up yet?
Albarn’s slurred vocal on Fan Club single “Some Glad Morning” is fairly incomprehensible; a cursory google reveals words that read like a prayer, although James’s funky bass line is arguably the only element of this noodly number that’s worthy of offering up to a higher plane. We’re then granted an acoustic mix of “Don’t Be”, a demo of “Sweet Song” and a previously unreleased Xfm session from 2003 featuring performances of “Caravan”, “End of a Century”, “Good Song”, “Out of Time” and “Tender”.
Overall this special edition of Think Tank contains too much material that’s merely very good as opposed to life-affirmingly awesome, but that’s more a comment on the strength of the Blur-vre than any kind of indictment on this very fine package. As such…
Rocksucker says: Four Quails out of Five!
The special edition of Think Tank will be released on 30th July through EMI. For more information, please visit blur.co.uk/blur21/