Happy 15th Anniversary to Blur’s seventh studio album Think Tank, originally released May 5, 2003.
The meteoric rise and rule of Britpop in the 1990s could be aligned with the reign of its greatest sons, Blur. The four puckish boys—Damon Albarn (lead vocals/keyboards), Graham Coxon (guitar/backing vocals), Alex James (bass), Dave Rowntree (drums)—formed in 1988 in London. Out of their union came Leisure, their 1991 debut LP. Five more albums followed—Modern Life is Rubbish (1993), Parklife (1994), The Great Escape (1995), Blur (1997), and 13 (1999)—yielding an endless stream of hits, sales and renown. Then suddenly, the Britpop bubble popped. Blur, wisely, sensing the shift in public sentiment toward the rock sub-genre they helped build issued a customary singles retrospective in 2000 and went quiet for a moment.
In that space of time, the quartet split off to pursue personal and artistic endeavors. Most notably, Albarn founded Gorillaz with digital artist Jamie Hewlett. The outfit’s inaugural effort Gorillaz was released in March of 2001 to acclaim and newfound notoriety for Albarn. However, in the second half of that same year, Blur reconvened to discuss a new record and its intentions.
Think Tank, Blur's seventh album, was an appropriate title as the effort was to serve as a space for all four members to come together and brainstorm about how to move the Blur brand forward into a new decade. There were complications ahead for Think Tank though. Coxon's battle with alcoholism had come to a head and led to his inability to commit to Think Tank. Friction between Coxon and the three Blur men ensued. Excluding his contribution to “Battery in Your Leg,” Coxon stepped away from the project, entering a rehabilitation center to treat his illness. He wouldn’t rejoin Blur until 2015's The Magic Whip.
Down to a trio for the first time, Albarn, James and Rowntree were united by the struggle born out of Coxon's departure. Written and recorded in studios in Devon, London, and Marrakesh, the musical and lyrical treasures of this collection are vast. Musically, with production aid from Ben Hillier, William Orbit and Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook, Blur infuse their already rhythmic rock stylings with club, jazz, dub and worldbeat motifs.
A part of Blur's appeal at their zenith was that they never stood totally still within the Britpop framework that they defined. Demonstrable risks, like Parklife's pseudo-dance-punk homage “Girls and Boys,” were immediate examples of this. The difference with Think Tank is that it sought to expand their experimental appetites across the entire span of an album, not just limit them to a few tracks.
Blur augmented their band sound with a wealth of session musicians, but they kept their hands on the record's reins as heard in the respective exercising of the trio's abilities as songwriters, arrangers, producers and instrumentalists. James' bass pumps and prowls on every cut on Think Tank, but the album's rousing and filmic opener “Ambulance” and the lolling groover “Good Song” really show off his chops. Alongside James' bass lines are Rowntree's own familiar drumming patterns, notably active on the biting, punky “Crazy Beat.” But things get really interesting in listening to Rowntree sitting among the miscellany of other percussionists employed for the LP—their unification births the smooth and smoky “Out of Time,” later elected as the set's first single.
Lyrically, the songs alternate between the supposedly dichotomous subjects of romance (“Sweet Song”), anti-war pieces (“Good Song”), informal social commentary (“Brothers and Sisters”) and more. Regardless, all of the songs here are soaked in Albarn's sexy, woozy croon that, effectively, mesmerizes the listener, driving him or her to dive deeper into the depths of Think Tank's contents.
Upon its release on May 5, 2003, Think Tank’s mission was accomplished in that it reintroduced them as a band retaining their core musical sensibilities and thriving in a contemporary context. A strong string of singles with “Out of Time,” “Crazy Beat” and “Good Song” did not alleviate the album's long term lack of sales, but its critical coronation made up for its muted commercial performance. The subsequent tour launched and wrapped without any hiccups, but it was a decidedly different experience for Blur without Coxon. Upon his return to the band, material from Think Tank has only ever been sparingly performed when they have toured.
Despite Blur's temporary breakdown of interpersonal communication as the back drop for Think Tank, the long player is still a victorious entry into the band's canon. Looser and lusher, thanks to utilizing a vaster palette of sonic colors, Blur became a band that could write or record in any method they desired, while maintaining their classic laddish charms.