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Perhaps because he’s neither launched loogies at his fans nor boinked Gwyneth Paltrow, Damon Albarn has never achieved the level of fame garnered by such fellow Brit-poppers as Liam Gallagher and Chris Martin. His low-wattage starpower certainly isn’t from lack of chops, however. Blur’s frontman does dick-driven guitar swagger just as well as the expectorating Oasis goon (“Woo hoo!” along to “Song 2”), and when it comes to lush, woe-is-me soundscapes, he can be just as touchy-feely as that star-fucking Coldplay ninny (bawl like a baby to “Tender”). Hell, he can even be pretty damn Radioheaded at times, nerdily matching Thom Yorke echoing synth belch for echoing synth belch (head-trip to any song on 13). Plus, as a bonus, Albarn’s kinda cute in that shave-needin’, chain-smokin’, knit-cap-wearin’ way. Add up all the pretty pieces and the man should really be a star.
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But he’s really not. So maybe Albarn’s second-tier success is because of his chameleonic artistry. After all, Gallagher, Martin, and Yorke usually take a couple of years to concoct new material, and it somehow always comes off as relatively cozy and familiar (yes, Kid A and Amnesiac included). Albarn, on the other hand, dreams up music faster than most of us change our undies, and it somehow always comes off as new and wildly varied. It’s tough to get a read on him, and these days, he’s more out-there prolific than ever. Albarn recently released a somewhat-solo project, 2002’s soulful, sweeping Mali Music, on which he jammed with musicians from the impoverished West African nation. Before that, he became the primary prankster behind Gorillaz, the beat-mad, loop-heavy sound experiment (reggae meets trance meets rock meets rap) that has cranked out aural wallpaper at an alarmingly faster-than-human pace.
But on Blur’s new album, Think Tank, Albarn may have gone overboardand that’s saying something. Recorded in both Morocco and London, the disc features 13 disparate tracks and plays like a collection of Albarn’s greatest mindfucks, half melody-rich and spectacularand half dull as hell. With the exception of one song, founding guitarist and co-leader Graham Coxon is nowhere to be found; two months into the recording, he split the band and took his tried-and-true pop sensibilities with him. This left Blur a trio and left Albarn in charge, now wielding a guitar as well as his trademark melodica. Soundboard studs Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) and William Orbit (aka Madonna’s chum) get production credits, but there’s no mistaking who’s really running the show.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s plenty of scintillating stuff here, including what will certainly be one of the most ubiquitous party cuts of the summer. Garagey guitar jangle, persistent “yeah yeah yeah”s, and what sounds like Donald Duck gobbling peyote buttons are the gotcha ingredients fueling first single “Crazy Beat,” a deliriously buoyant Fatboy Slim-produced cut reminiscent of the feel-goof vibe of “Song 2.” “I love my sister and I love her tonight!” Albarn howls, as layer after layer of digital twirls and stuttery beats drive the track to a frenzied finish. The guy really should do an all-pop-rock album someday; he’s deadly with a singalong hook, and his guitar riffs can be absolutely Stonesian. But with the exception of “We’ve Got a File on You,” 60 bombastic seconds of snake-charmer punk, there isn’t that much flat-out pop-rock fun to be had here. It’s almost as if Albarn threw the one cut in just to prove that he can still craft hitseven though he’d much rather be doing something else.
Like, for example, out-Coldplaying Coldplay on a trio of slow, swelling heart-achers: “Sweet Song,” “Good Song,” and “Out of Time.” Albarn has said that Think Tank is about “love and politics,” but most of the album is buried underneath so much stuff that you don’t know what he’s talking about half the time. On these three songs, though, the message comes through loud and clear: All we need is a little patience, a little affectionand maybe a little nookie, too. “Sweet Song” has an
icicle-delicate piano line, a buzzing rhythm section, and Albarn’s lovely falsetto: “Stop crying now/Here’s comes the sun.” “Good Song” is a little sturdier and a little dustier, with a Beatles-esque harmonized chorus picked up off the sidewalk somewhere along Abbey Road. And the album’s best song by far, the haunting world-gone-mad ballad “Out of Time,” painfully pleads, “Where’s the love song/To set us free?” to the accompaniment of an Andalusian string section. The effect is stunning.
When you start smelling Gorillaz in the mix, however, things start to go awry. Although these half-dozen arty-smarty songs (and nonsongs) are essentially harmless, they’re also instantly forgettable, meandering intrusions on an album that coulda been killer. Blur has done experimental stuff before, but it’s usually had at least a little emotion tucked in with all the electronic doodads. Not so here. Album-opener “Ambulance” has a droning beat, flatulent brass blasts, and woozy “woo”-ing background vocals; when Albarn sings “I ain’t got nothing to be scared of” to an apparent paramour, he might as well be saying, “You are getting sleepy…” and waving a watch in front of her eyes. Spacey, go-nowhere cuts “On the Way to the Club” and “Caravan” blurp, bleep, and bumblethe results, no doubt, of Albarn’s futzing around in the studio after everyone’s gone home and he’s just unwrapped a fresh pack of cigs. “Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club” features a great title, but its world-beaten mix of found sounds plays like someone showing off
bo-ring vacation slides. And the near-instrumental, near-endless “Jets” has Malian string plucks, a turgid drum, and a babbling, nonsensical Albarn who would greatly benefit from a swift frying pan to the head.
Think Tank closes with the groovy “Gene by Gene,” a slightly chirpier version of the Clash’s slowed-ska classic “Straight to Hell,” and the grand “Battery in Your Leg,” an apocalyptic love song full of wobbly guitars and warbly keybs. It’s a strong finish to an album that, like its creator, is too ambitious for its own good. Next time out, our man should try fewer ideasunless, of course, one of them is dating Gwyneth Paltrow. I hear she’s single again, and a tabloid-worthy romance, the inevitable cutie-pie Rolling Stone cover, and some nice fat fame might do Albarnand his listenersa whole lotta good. CP