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Upon hearing the first notes of Blur’s now-ubiquitous new single “Crazy Beat,” it’s clear that the bouncy pop of early albums Parklife and The Great Escape is long gone.
Instead, Damon Albarn and the boys continue to experiment (as on 1995’s Blur and 1997’s 13) with moody alt-dance and indie rock compositions on Think Tank.
The musical shift is understandable, considering the less than amicable departure of stalwart guitarist Graham Coxon (the band cited “antisocial behavior”). Fortunately for listeners, Coxon’s absence leaves Albarn free to incorporate influences from recent collaborators Gorillaz, for whom Albarn served as frontman, and Massive Attack.
British popular music at large has been moving towards more dance-oriented styles for years. Yet Blur have always been on top of change, thus solidifying their superiority over Oasis as Britpop’s flagship act.
The term “Britpop” was coined in the mid-Nineties, with the boom of guitar rock bands who saw themselves as following in the proud tradition of the Beatles, Who, Kinks and Smiths. In further popularizing the sound, bands like the Stone Roses and Suede paved the way for both Blur and Oasis. Both bands made massive contributions to the- genre—Blur with their third album Parklife and Oasis with their auspicious debut Definitely Maybe. But only the former band continued to evolve, while their Manchester rivals would tread the same waters of their debut for the rest of their career.
Moving away from their early baggy-beat and shoegazer styles, Blur have more recently taken on electronic traces in their music that parallel the advent of trip-hop acts such as Massive Attack and Portishead.
Think Tank even features production from Norman Cook (a.k.a big-beat pioneer Fatboy Slim), never fully replacing Graham Coxon’s missing axe. The emphasis here is clearly on sound and atmospherics rather than songwriting, and catchy guitar hooks are all but completely absent. Instead, they are replaced by winding synths that are every bit as infectious, yet sound unmistakably modern. Fatboy Slim’s production exposes new sides of Blur that were probably kept in check by Coxon’s conservative presence in the band.
Still, they haven’t completely abandoned their roots. The guitar parts (which Coxon played prior to his departure) stand out boldly throughout the album. “Crazy Beat,” whose repeated choruses of “Yeah yeah yeah yeah!” will undoubtedly recall their own parodic “Song 2.” And the Oi! cries in “We’ve Got a File On You” also recall Parklife closer “Lot 105.”
British single “Out Of Time” brings forth a familiar anti-war bent as Albarn laments “Too many people down / Everything turning the wrong way around” over chiming guitar.
But songs like the Two-Tone influenced “Gene By Gene” and the bass-driven “Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club” are jarringly new. On those tracks, Albarn’s usual penchant for clever lyrics and tight pop structures are sacrificed for sing-along and slick production.
With Think Tank, Blur manage to summarize their entire career on a single genre-bending album. While they are still far from masters of electronica, they succeed with flying colors on most counts.
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