Review Summary: A Ballad for the Good Times
“It seemed to me like the most fantastic story I’d ever heard but while it was happening” reminisced Blur bassist Alex James in reference to his time spent with his band. The Baggy/Britpop/Alt-Indie/Gospel/Afrobeat quartet underwent an arguably ongoing journey that traversed as many emotional hills as it did the band’s many genre reinventions. The history of Blur is filled with a great deal of rock star clichés including massive inter-band feuds, copious drug abuse, uncontrollable hedonism, disillusionment, love, loss, and most importantly, rampant alcoholism. The latter of these centered mainly on guitarist Graham Coxon. The band’s move from Britpop was sparked by a letter sent to frontman Damon Albarn from Coxon, which expressed his desire for Blur’s music to “scare people again.” The resulting album, the 1997 self-titled record, not only succeeded in somewhat satiating Graham’s desires, but also proved to be an incredibly successful venture. Incorporating elements from the grunge movement taking America by storm during the period, the record bore little resemblance to its ancestors, trading bouncy horn sections and mockney third person portraits of English characters for warm heroin dreams and experimental guitars. Unfortunately, the shift toward uncertain territory never put Graham to ease entirely, leaving him to find solace in his vice which was so very crucially a part of his life as a musician.
Despite further reinventions in the band’s next record, including two songs vocalized by Graham, the descent into alcoholism continued. By the time the band had reconvened to record what would be their final album, Coxon had faded away from his role in the band and his friends within it. The band left for Morocco to begin what would become the Think Tank sessions. Having returned from a lengthy tour of Africa, Albarn had a vision for the coming record that was heavily influenced by both producer Fatboy Slim and his own travels, a vision which may not have reflected Graham’s musical inclination at the time. Once the sessions began, however, it became clear that the weather was not fair amongst the band. The tension predictably resulted mainly from Graham, who would often intentionally record bad takes of parts he previously played perfectly just to show that he could. The mood growing fractious and recording going slow, the band needed to take some form of action to save the album. The exact circumstances of the situation vary depending on the source, but in the documentary No Distance Left To Run, the band establishes that after a few days of recording, Damon, Alex and Dave expressed concerns regarding Graham to the manager of Blur. These words were miscommunicated as words are wont to do, leading to the departure of Coxon from the band. Fractured, the band had to compensate for the absence of their guitarist, which was attempted using a greater emphasis on Alex’s bass, increased African-influenced instrumentation and Damon’s inception as the band’s principal guitarist. In all, Graham’s guitar can only be heard in one track on this album, the closer “Battery In Your Leg”.
The resulting album received a predictable frosty reception from critics, who mourned the loss of the enigmatic guitar that Graham introduced. Previous songs such as “Chemical World” and “This Is A Low” would have fallen flat without the winding, unique, almost vocalizing guitars that Coxon employed. Simply put, Think Tank was shocking to fans of the band. Without a full understanding of the circumstances surrounding Graham’s departure, the album could have appeared to be backhanded or even resentful. Over a decade later, Think Tank is still often disparaged as a result of how far away from Blur’s previous works it had grown.
To despise this album for being different from its predecessors, however, is to deprive oneself of a truly great piece of music. The influence of Africa on Damon is often considered to be a very polarizing trait in later Blur works, but Think Tank’s lead single “Out Of Time” remains nearly universally praised despite the most obvious instrument present being an Oud. Ensconcing one of Damon’s most heartfelt vocal performances, the single is a beautiful union of African instrumentation and Western rhythmic structure. Other notable moments include the breezy bliss of “Good Song”, dark beauty of opener “Ambulance” and the distant crackle of “Caravan”. Upon release, the second single “Crazy Beat” was derided for being almost pandering. The track breaks the flow of the album by being reminiscent of “Song 2” or “Chinese Bombs”. In a word, it is belligerent. While catchy, it is a harsh deviation from the theme of the other tracks and may be interpreted as a flaw by some. Another potential blemish that must be mentioned is “Jets”, which contains a lengthy saxophone solo and minimal vocals by Albarn. The main issue taken with “Jets” is its unorthodox nature. Unlike “Crazy Beat”, it doesn’t just seem odd in context with the album, it is odd in the context of the band’s entire discography. However, this is certainly in line with the experimental spirit of Think Tank and doesn’t detract from the experience.
Despite the apparent flaw of Graham’s absence, Think Tank has one very significant asset, which is rooted in the same conflict. A sadness runs through the album, most obtusely in “Sweet Song” and “Battery In Your Leg”. Albarn states that he wrote the former while looking at a photograph of Graham and the latter as the first and only about the band itself. “I didn’t mean to hurt you. It takes time to see what you’ve done” he laments in “Sweet Song”, providing a vulnerability in the typically confident singer, a vulnerability not seen since his earlier split with longtime partner Justine Frischmann and its accompanying song “No Distance Left To Run”. This love for Graham can be understood when considering the fact that their friendship extends to their childhood. The heartbreak in Damon’s voice during these two songs is very real, which makes Graham’s sole guitar in “Battery In Your Leg” that much more emotional. A deceptively simple descending guitar line, its jagged transitions resemble sonically the image of a dark cloak of reverb drenched in tears. Uncertainty, regret and heartbreak lace the song together and cap off with great uncertainty what has remained the final Blur album.
Four years after Think Tank was released, Graham and Damon met once again and managed to patch their friendship. Graham’s sobriety allowed him to rejoin Blur and perform at Glastonbury, which Damon later recounted as “as beautiful a memory as I’ll ever have”. The band has been reunited ever since, but has done little more than embark on occasional tours and record three promotional singles. While the world may never see another Blur record, the band’s legacy stands as one of the most difficult and rewarding in music history, and Think Tank represents that balance of difficulty and reward in a way that makes it the perfect end to Blur’s career, but only if it absolutely has to be.