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Blur - Think Tank

  by Jeff Thiessen

published: 20 / 10 / 2009

Blur - Think Tank
Label: Select Label
Format: N/A


In our 'Re:View' section, in which our writers look back on albums from the past, Jeff Thiessen reflects upon Blur's 2003 seventh and last album to date, 'Think Tank'

Several years ago, when I went to college here in Saskatoon, I didn’t want to fork over the money required to ensure a saved parking spot close outside campus doors. It just seemed like a strange way to spend my cash. I guess it was the breaking point. Between tuition, and books, and gas money, I certainly didn’t want to pay for close proximity to an institution that I hardly put any effort into anyways. This required me parking many blocks away; I think it was about a 12-14 block walk I had to endure on the days I would actually attend. This was especially problematic on those inhumanely cold days our province is prone to so much of the time. Naturally I needed music for this trek, and for approximately two out of the four years I was in university, I listened to the same album every day in my Discman on the way to campus. Blur’s 'Think Tank' record. It just survived any condition. It really didn’t matter what sort of weather extreme I was going through on any given day. It just seemed like the right choice to be listening to. It got to a point where the walk itself became the sacred institution, and I started to notice a bunch of little things around me that may have seemed trivial at first, but upon repeated viewings, began to add up to something I couldn’t quite figure out, yet I felt truly glad I was a part of it all. I think it’s fairly safe to say that 'Think Tank' is not my favourite album of all time, as I am currently thinking of a few off the cuff selections that would have to be placed ahead of it in terms of all-time value. Just because it’s not my favourite album, this, however,doesn’t mean it can’t hold any other distinction, and in this case 'Think Tank' would be the record I take with me if I were thrown somewhere despondent and isolated. Many refer to this as the ‘desert island’ disc, but since I grew up in such a cold, barren tundra, it’s pretty difficult to imagine me living in any place that is perpetually hot. The desert island could be your most cherished album of all time, but as I’m proving here, it’s not a prerequisite. My top three albums are Joy Division’s 'Closer', the Stooges 'Funhouse', and Dylan and the Band’s 'Basement Tapes' (in no order), but I’m not sure I would want to be stuck with any of those offerings for the remainder of my time on this planet. Without getting into too much detail, they all represent a certain extreme that resonates in a very profound way with me as I live my life here in blue-collar suburbia, but sometimes I think my surroundings play a pretty huge role in my adoration for those albums. 'Think Tank' seems to endure, and thrive, in a fairly isolated spectrum, and by that I mean its position in my life doesn’t seem dependent on any external factors whatsoever. This is why I believe this record would be the one I’d have to pick for my banishment to desolation row. It’s a survivor. It’s always been there for me, and it doesn’t require severe circumstances for it to maximize the enormous effect it’s so casually in command of. In a sense, every day for those two years I spent on an island. I just didn’t realise at the time it was the destination and not a detour. 'Think Tank 'was released in 2003, amid some pretty massive internal problems within Blur. For all accounts, it was the standard G n’ R syndrome. Lead singer tries to take a successful yet fairly traditional group in new, wild directions while rock-solid guitarist thinks such deviations are a waste of time and a disservice to their legions of fans. In a case like Guns 'n' Roses, or Blur, it really should have been a case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, with only one logical resolution (the end of everything), but for whatever reason, the singers always prevail in these situations and carry on with the name. Now, I love 'Think Tank' more than I usually let on, but I’m nobody’s idiot. I’m everybody’s idiot, and this is why I’m acutely aware this is not really a Blur album. It can’t be because the name Blur is inherently associated with Graham Coxon, and considering his only contribution was one guitar-line on the closing track of the album, for all intents and purposes this should be a Damon Albarn solo offering. In a sort of twisted way though, I’m really glad 'Think Tank' stayed under the Blur moniker. See, based on the band’s geographic origins, the specific years the band started moving units, and the (at times) overwhelmingly British-sounding lead singer, Blur constantly was compared to and with Oasis. Personally, if this sort of comparison was something I had to deal with while making some highly intelligent and inspired music, I’d be pretty tempted to get that urban assault vehicle thing from the end of 'Tango and Cash' (or in the last third of Stripes) to lay waste to both Gallagher mansions while they sleep. It sounds petty to whine that it wasn’t fair, but you know what, IT WASN’T FUCKING FAIR. I absolutely hate the fact these bands are so commonly mentioned in the same sentence. It’s akin to likening Noam Chomsky to Michael Moore just because they both don’t like Bush Jr. Even if 'Think Tank' pissed off a lot of Blur fans (and it most certainly did), the foot soldiers had to be pretty relieved all ties were effectively cut from the Oasis camp. There was just no room for compare and contrast now, even if the most rudimentary assessment between the two was a radical stretch. The brilliance of 'Think Tank' established that Blur did not win or lose; it just proved there should never have been an insipid two-sides-of-the-coin mentality in the first place. If you thought the musical terms sampled loops, dub, and jazz are ones that shouldn’t be associated with the same band who did 'Parklife', you might want to forget you ever read this article. It doesn’t take long before long-time followers are thrown into the deep end, with the hypnotic swirl of 'Ambulance', arguably the strongest cut on 'Think Tank'. A rhythmic drum loop pushes its way through all blips and whirrs, until the haunting vocal circles around the dealings, not to devour, but probably because there has always been a bit of the Specials' 'Ghost Town' track in Blur’s best work, 'Ambulance' being no exception. The song starts, stops, starts again amidst white noise riffing as Albarn mutters, “No, I ain’t got nothing to be scared of, cause I love you.” As amazing as the first three minutes of the track are, the meat of it comes in way of the closing portion, when all the distortion and harmony seems to blend together as though no time was lost. By this point on 'Think Tank', it becomes ridiculously clear that no matter how simplistic or one-dimensional Albarn’s words are, he is the voice of all reasons. There certainly might be a patent pending here en route to some more epic declarations, but why wait? Especially when they sound as gorgeous as the hushed 'Caravan' (on that note, apparently I love every song with this title. This one, the Black Sabbath ballad, the Van Morrison tune....all pure gold). With the exception of some truly bizarre, Clash-inspired freak-outs on 'Think Tank' (they can work on their own merits, but it goes without saying they take a lot of getting used to, especially when listening to the album as a whole), this is truly an album of understated beauty. 'Ambulance' triumphs as a result of accord and dissonance striking a completely surreal coexistence and eventual symbiosis, but for most of the time it’s easier to decipher why we feel so connected with this music. 'Think Tank' is about the subtle elements in life that we may consider daily minutia, but Albarn actually steps off the train and looks around, something most of us just don’t have the ability to do, or flat out refuse to. Every single track tells a story, and it’s never a linear one. Instead, it’s the story of paltry, relatively trivial sentiments we all go through constantly, but routinely dismiss. The simple joy of walking to a pub with a girl who loves your blue eyes (the absurdly breath-taking 'On the Way to the Club'), or sharing a new song with that person in your bedroom ('Good Song'). Maybe the most clear cut and wonderful example of this streamlined bliss on 'Think Tank' is the closing track 'Battery in Your Leg', a song I’ve always considered one of the most touching offerings I have ever heard. Call me crazy, but when Albarn tells us “this is a ballad for the good times/you can be with me”, it’s all interpretive and entirely inviting. This is one of the most powerful pieces of music you will ever hear, and the first time I heard it, I will fully admit I did not have a dry eye. I’m not sure we should question why the trifling particulars of Albarn’s life sets him free over the course of 'Think Tank', but, take it from me, it’s an album that will make you feel unhinged to the core. The blood trail is in the snow, but why do we follow it? We follow it because the gift of life isn’t some obtuse pursuit that requires exotic journeys and choices; instead he proves there are just too many things we walk away from. If I’ve learned anything from 'Think Tank,' it’s anything can be personified, and everything deserves to be looked at under the most carved-out keyhole we can find. I bet 'Think Tank' can make you smile when the blood hits the floor. There is a lot of disillusionment and despair on this album, but it’s never broached as some sort of tacky lifeline we call can abuse in some misguided attempt to temporarily feel more secure with our own lack of anything meaningful in our lives. Instead it’s just a nice shorthand idea we can grasp onto with the least amount of resistance. 'Think Tank' is a herculean effort that succeeds by cutting off one manacle at a time. Freedom is achieved through a concerted effort to see everything the same way, which ultimately proves to be not really caring about the forest, and seeing each tree for what it really is. Certain things in life naturally demand your attention. The balls-out ending of 'Seven'. The stuttering cough at the beginning of Sabbath’s 'Sweet Leaf'. Potato chips that have an excess of flavour. I guarantee you if 'Think Tank' gets steady rotation in your stereo, your life will be full of exponentially more elements that although they went largely unnoticed or fleeting in years past. You’ll wonder why you could have been so dismissive, for so long. If this is getting too arcane for you, just think of it this way: 'Think Tank' slows everything down to a crawl, and that’s a gift nearly all of us should cherish. It’s not an overstatement when I say there is a very high probability, this will be the most meaningful music involved in your life. It’s not an exaggeration, because every gratification, every tear we hear on the record, are presented in the most linear manner possible. There are no grand declarations of love on the album, no grinding contempt. Leave that bullshit for Oasis. Instead, Albarn sings about the human condition in a way that makes it seem like it’s an accessible dynamic in all of life’s little situations. And you know what, he’s right. Interviewers say that the day after Kennedy was assassinated, Oswald seemed entirely at peace with himself and the world. He finally found meaning in his life through a horrific crime that completely reshaped history. Nothing made him feel like he was leading a worthy life until he did something everyone noticed. Unfortunately a lot of people share similar misplaced views on their place in our world. Not in terms of an internationally resounding murder, but goals are placed in high places. When these goals aren’t achieved through a natural, fluid progression, often times they’re forced, and that’s when happiness exists only on an artificial level. The thing is though, it doesn’t have to be this way. Far too many people can’t fathom the possibility sustained joy in life is best achieved through an alerted effort to wholly embrace it on a completely temporary and fleeting level, until the next moment comes to work with. When a life is strictly about goals, than you’re looking at a lot of years just killing time. 'Think Tank' teaches us that time is our friend, and the world does a good enough job creating new targets for us to pursue without us racing to create our own. When all is said and done, this record may not be my favourite, but it is my most useful. And who knows, maybe something so utilitarian should be sitting at the top. I guess I’ll never know until I’m thrust into that isolated void that allows me only a singular album. Until than, I’m staying off the train, and the more of you that join me, the better.

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Blur - Think Tank

Blur - Think Tank

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