In most cultures, seven is a magic number. Not in rock’n’roll, where to sustain any degree of originality beyond album three or four is about as rare as a sober Shane MacGowan. So it is nothing short of remarkable to report that Think Tank is the sharpest, most imaginative and downright listenable album of Blur’s career to date?something virtually no other British band has been able to claim seven albums into the game since The Beatles (Revolver) and The Rolling Stones (Beggars Banquet).
Think Tank is also the perfect riposte to Damon Albarn’s detractors, who like to claim that departed guitarist Graham Coxon was Blur’s unsung genius. Think Tank not only confirms that Albarn was the band’s musical visionary. It also suggests that, at 35, he’s matured into the Bowie of his generation, with a seemingly endless capacity to absorb new ideas and come up with something fresh and different every time.
Albarn’s development has taken us by surprise. Cast your mind back to the mid-’90s. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker was widely held to be the cleverest of the Britpop crew, the ‘arty one’ most likely still to be making interesting music in 10 years’ time. Yet he’s produced nothing to match 1995’s Different Class. It was more predictable that, after Oasis’ early triumphs, Noel Gallagher would be reduced to repeating himself. But few could ever have imagined from the chirpy mannerisms of Parklife that Albarn would prove to have such depth.
These days, he dismisses Blur’s early material as “a joke” (see interview, right)?and, in many ways, Think Tank is not so much Blur’s seventh album as the third album by Blur Mk II. For after 1995’s The Great Escape, Albarn killed off Britpop with the band’s career-changing fifth album, 1997’s Blur, which owed more to Sonic Youth and Pavement than to The Kinks and The Small Faces. Two years later, it was followed by 13, an even more panoramic adventure in hi-fi, lyrically inspired by the disintegration of his relationship with Justine Frischmann.
Since then he’s scored a film soundtrack with Michael Nyman, and dreamt up the brilliant conceit that is Gorillaz, which found him flirting with dance and hip hop. He also discovered world music, started his own label, and released his acclaimed African-fusion project, Mali Music. Now all of this musical voyaging on the high seas comes home to roost on Think Tank.
Not that it is either a world music album (a rumour which started when the band decamped for a month with a mobile studio to Morocco) or a dance record (a theory developed by NME, which claimed that Norman Cook was masterminding the production). Fatboy Slim does assist on a couple of tracks, and Albarn insinuates some subtle non-Western rhythmic touches here and there. But they merely add flavouring to what is a grown-up alt.rock album of breathtaking potency and invention.
“I wanted to write some really great pop tunes and then to make them sound really fucked up,” Albarn told Uncut. It’s a perfect description of Think Tank’s mission and its greatest strength-namely its juxtaposition of audacious and unusual textures, in which you can hear the spirit of Eno, mid-period Bowie and Can, with some of the most heart-rendingly sweet melodies this side of Burt Bacharach. This means that, however ambitious the band’s sonic experiments, Albarn’s melodic skills ensure Blur remain as commercially astute as ever.
Lyrically, Albarn claims the album is about “the personal and the political”. In reality, this means that old-fashioned ’60s mantra, “peace and love”. There’s plenty of tenderness to reflect both his new-found happiness as a family man and his own neo-hippie philosophy. The political content reflects his role in the anti-war movement, with various references to the parlous state of the world today. They’re oblique and, at times, even obscure. But if he rewrote “Masters Of War”, we’d all accuse him of naivet