As of writing, this is their third best album and I doubt this ranking will change with the upcoming The Magic Whip (but we’ll see, I guess). No shit, there are at least three albums that are much, much worse than Think Tank: the clueless Leisure, the melodyless Modern Life is Rubbish and the excessive The Great Escape. The second best Britpop band in the world only deserves that title because of their non-Britpop stuff. And if third best doesn’t seem good enough to you for a band with a relatively small discography, then consider this higher praise: after 13, Think Tank is Blur’s prettiest album. They were always a band that could be pretty, usually through the use of harmonies (ie. “End of a Century”) or orchestration (ie .”The Universal”) or lyrics (ie. “You’re So Great”), but very rarely throughout the entirety of one album.
And yes, I have factored in the existence of “Crazy Beat,” which is the worst song to appear on any studio album from Blur, the Satanic spawn when they forced “Song 2” and “Clint Eastwood” to copulate. Yes, I have considered that the band’ most talented member, Graham Coxon, was no longer part of the band at this point in time (though everyone points out that he plays guitar on “Battery in Your Leg” … one of those things where no one would notice otherwise). Yes, I have considered that this is one of the many albums that sound like post-Radiohead unction that’s never as good as Radiohead (other examples: Sea Change, Terror Twilight), with more focus on twilight-like textures by a band who gave fuck all about textures previously. Yes, I have considered that, in other words, Think Tank doesn’t sound like Blur despite being billed as a Blur album.
Rebuttal: none of those things matter. I mean, “Crazy Beat” is inexcusable, but the delete button is your friend, and no, album purists, it’s not going to grow on you. (Replace with “Money Makes Me Crazy” which is still dumb but not stupid.) I mean, sure, Graham Coxon is missing, but it’s not noticeable like R.E.M.’s Bill Berry-less Up or the Smashing Pumpkins’ Jimmy Chamberlain-lessAdore because the band fill out by adding African instruments and subtle orchestration. I mean, sure, some of this does sound like Radiohead; in particular, “Battery in Your Leg,” but since when has “sounds like Radiohead” been condemnable instead of commendable? And sure, it doesn’t sound like Blur, but given how all their albums from 1991 to 1995 had every instrument – and at times, there were a lot of instruments – upfront in an overbearing and overwhelming way befitting of the 90s (a.k.a. 60s music, but louder and thus, “better”), this isn’t a bad thing. You’d think for all the praise that other acts get for switching their sound, Blur, who dramatically changed from Britpop to post-grunge to post-trip-hop to post-Radiohead would at least be mentioned in those circles. (But then again, Lou Reed and Ornette Coleman and Arthur Russell are never mentioned…people want to keep discussing their David Bowie and Radiohead records.)
On that last point, in their review of the extra-extravagant and still-not-definitive boxset, 21, Pitchfork’s Lindsay Zoladz wrote: “2003’s Think Tank sounds more like a post-script […] it may be the only Blur record that suffers in retrospect” as she lowered Pitchfork‘s score for the album from a 9.0 to an 8.5. Disagree emphatically: it’s the only Blur album that doesn’t sound like a product of the 90s (and has thus, aged better if anything), and this is not because it was recorded and released in the new decade.
I mean: the vibes, the vibes! From inception to 1995, Blur had made a point of making British music for the British people, before taking the fight to America in 1997. Here, they vacation to Morocco and end up with a lot of songs that approximate the Moroccan nightlife (I’m guessing; I’ve never been); even the obligatory mid-album rave-up “We’ve Got a File On You.” (And that’s another reason why “Crazy Beat” sucks: it’s just woefully out of place.) The obvious example is “Out of Time,” where you can hear that ambience throughout, but also in the solo. Elsewhere, Alex James – a better bassist than you probably think or know because he was never given much to do (outside of “Girls & Boys”) – contributes delicious bass lines throughout.
The highlights: the groove of “Ambulance” which justifies its runtime, even if its not as hooky as other long openers like “Beetlebum” or “Tender”; the melody of “You seem very beautiful to me” in “Good Song” and Albarn’s soulfully sung last verse in the same song; the psychedelic trifecta of “On the Way to the Club” through “Caravan” where Blur do Primal Scream or Massive Attack (specifically “Brothers and Sisters”) better than either act have done since XTRMNTR andMezzanine respectively; the accordion(?)-aided atmosphere of “Caravan”; “You’ll feel the weight of it”; how the title of “Sweet Song” tells you everything you need to know about what’s packaged underneath; the wavering saxophone outro of “Jets” (though the track could’ve been trimmed a bit); the climax of hidden track “Me, White Noise” – “Why am I here? I’M HERE BECAUSE I’VE GOT NO FUCKING CHOICEEE” – that makes for a better spoken word track thanBlur’s “Essex Dogs.” And I really like closer “Battery for Your Leg” straight down to its atmosphere which makes it sound like it’s raining outside and you’re stuck indoors, by yourself, to how uplifting – however brief – it is when the band comes in to the “Put a rock beat over anything” command.
But the best song is the one everyone knows: “Out of Time.” The melody’s the album’s best and there’s the most thought given to the song’s texture, see specifically the keyboard twinkles during the choruses of “Out of Time” (“Watch the world spinning gently out of time…”) and even better, the arpeggiated guitar line underneath the couplet, “Feel the sunshine on your face / It’s in a computer now” that might be Blur’s best lyric, looking ahead to the digital era / social media era years before either of those things came to be.