REVIEW: Blur: Think Tank
Blur: Think Tank [EMI, 2003]
Three words? the long caravan
I spent spent a large part of the last ten days in New York City. It's a slick-hot city when the sun's blazing, slick-wet when the rain's pouring. Away from Central Park - lost in Manhattan, breathing exhaust in Queens - everything's hazybusy, your arms brushing against strangers', their conversations mingling with your own. If New York was upholstery it would be black leather, and sort of sweaty.
People draw thick marker lines between America and Europe, especially in times like these. The USA is a unilateralist brute, Europe is a moustachioed quasi-Communist guttersnipe. The USA has entertainment, Europe has culture. America - McDonalds; Europe - the International Criminal Court.
All this, of course, is a fallacy. The so-called "divide" is a straw-man for the complex dynamic between two parts of the world. There are genuine ideological differences, sure, but so too is there a great deal in common. That commonality is plain as day when an Irish cellist is sawing away at "Purple Haze" at NYC's Bowery Ballroom. It's clear as night when Think Tank's on the stereo.
Because Blur's new record sounds like New York City.
That it was recorded in Morocco, by (for the most part) three Englishmen, is irrelevant. Or rather - it is relevant, but not because it proves the dominance of American pop culture: you'd have to be crazy not to hear the Brit in the art-disco mess of "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club." The thing is, New York City seems to have the same spirit as London, or something. There's the same pulse in its streetlights, in the sudden, strange parks, the shift from pavement stamp to birdsong. Ditto for the art. For the people. Yes, Think Tank is an argument for that great humanist ideal, for the inherent connection between all people. We are all different, certainly, but so too are we the same. We're linked by "genes" and "good songs" and "jets ... like comets at sunset."
Now before I get too carried away about the grand fraternity of mankind and the noble sorority of womankind, I should make it clear that Think Tank is merely a good record, not a great one. NYC, after all, isn't always a particularly fulfilling city - nor, I'm sure, is London. But though "Crazy Beat" isn't much fun to listen to - squelching and limp, Coxon-less guitar windmills - it is the sound of that certain stretch of road at 3am, the girls in platforms and lip-gloss, the guys in basketball (or is it soccer [sorry, 'football']) jerseys. Similarly, there's a common memory in "Gene by Gene"'s swing creak, in the muddled slow-motion crowd of "On My Way to the Club," in the effortless swing of "Out of Time." "You can be with me," Damon Albarn sings on "Battery in Your Leg," his voice a simple reminder to everyone, everywhere.
Graham Coxon's gone from Blur, of course. William Orbit and Fatboy Slim toss in some production efforts. (Orbit's contribution, "Sweet Song," is an absolute success, a Blur high-point. It's music-box piano and cloud-soft background voices, Albarn laying it out with a sad smile and a shrug: "I'm a darkened soul / My streets all pop music and gold / All our lives are on TV / You switch off and try to sleep / People get so lonely.") Blur may certainly be the Damon Albarn Band, for now - a trend which echoes the apparent evolution of that other English art-rock band - but although this gives his creativity free reign, it also makes it all a little too easy. "Ambulance" is an eleven minute drift, while "Jets" seems an excercise in, well, noodling. The reappearance of Coxon's guitar on the final track threatens (hooray!) to add some tension, but the surge of guitar feedback is laid low in the mix. Nothing is challenging Albarn save his own ambition, and he's prone to staring down the dark alleys of his own navel.
So as much as Think Tank paints a certain emotional and imaginative landscape, it doesn't dig too hard at the hues and starbursts that lie underneath. Blur have canny, sunglassed eyes, but they're not yet seeing through the (dazzling, vibrant, rich rich rich) veneer. No rainbows spotted in the sewers, no worms in the veins. Until the band - or perhaps simply Albarn - is able to excavate these insights, they will continue to be overshadowed by their tortured brothers from Oxford, the ones who played "Creep" to their "Song 2."
(Please note: Continuing my policy of protest against so-called "copy protected" CDs that I'm forced to rip-and-burn in order to play in my Sony discman, Think Tank's rating has been reduced by 0.5.)