Secret Meeting score: 85
by Stewart Cheetham, Philip Moss and Joseph Purcell
Blur have always evolved, and always looked to throw in a curveball that separated them from their contemporaries. With the exception of 1995’s The Great Escape – which was a fine album, but offered little development upon their seminal Britpop masterpiece, Parklife – they have changed and tinkered their sound from album to album. Damon Albarn, unlike many of the 90’s indie songwriters, has continued to bridge out in his influences to this day. And this is evident from his work with his many different artistic incarnations including Gorillaz, collaborations with Bobby Womack and Gil Scott Heron, his African Express and opera works (Dr Dee and Monkey: Journey To The West, and his often overlooked, but nonetheless excellent record with The Good, The Bad & The Queen.
Like many of his contemporaries, Albarn’s inspirations also often were centred on his own, at times tumultuous, life. What set him apart was how direct he was in the way he delivered his inward-facing dissection. The 1997 release of Blur’s self-titled album, containing Beetlebum, Song 2 & On Your Own, chronicled his battle with heroin, fame and internal band struggles, and is an album that is quite brilliantly strife-ridden. Similarly, the release of 13 the following year, best known for containing the poptastic Coffee and TV, is Albarn’s excruciatingly honest take on his relationship breakdown with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann. Out of such personal suffering emerged Tender, Trim Trabb and – to my mind – Albarn and Blur’s most poignant moment, No Distance Left to Run- with the brutally honest opening lyrics, ‘it’s over, you don’t need to tell me, I hope you’re with someone who makes you feel safe in your sleeping tonight, I won’t kill myself, trying to stay in your life, I got no distance left to run’.
Others became lazy and stuck in their rock star excesses, caged by their inability to create anything other than music by numbers, or an unwillingness to stray from what elevated them in the first place. At the same time, Albarn and Blur were embracing the changing nature of their lives and harnessing it. It is what made them a band that is not just consigned to one period, but can still produce albums today that surpass most – if not all – of the output from contemporary so-called alternative pop stars.
So, for this week’s essential album, we turn to Think Tank. An often overlooked and under-appreciated collection of songs, foreshadowing many of the aforementioned moves that Albarn has made since.
Opener, Ambulance, floats on an erratic bongo beat, before Albarn’s painful utterance, ‘I ain’t got nothing to be scared of, because I love you’, ambles on top of clashing electronica and acoustic-based instrumentation. The track showcases the vulnerability of Albarn, until it breaks down into an all-out groove that creates quite the contrast from the opening minute.
The three singles from the album were Out of Time, Crazy Beat and Good Song. Possibly providing Albarn’s finest vocal performances, Out Of Time magnificently blends his sorrowful delivery of the lines ‘watch the world spinning gently out of time’ with the euphoric espousal ‘feel the sunshine on your face’. The track oozes both quality and beauty. Good Song, again, caresses the ear of the listener and allows them to lose themselves and soar along to the music. Sandwiched between Out of Time and Good Song, is the Norman Cook-produced Crazy Beat. An experimental stomp, complete with razor guitars and a bizarre frog like computer-generated voice, it is very much a song that still divides opinion even amongst Blur’s most staunch supporters all these years later.
Blur’s previous flirtation with different producers saw William Orbit (Madonna, U2) infuse 13 with electronica, a move that clashed with Graham Coxon’s love for lo-fi Americana. Here, Blur’s decision to work with producers Ben Hillier (U2, Smashing Pumpkins, Suede, Depeche Mode) and Norman Cook aka Fat Boy Slim, was a move that saw them embrace Middle Eastern and African musicianship, fused with dub, jazz, dance and hip hop.
Think Tank was also representative of the zeitgeist in its use of design, with Banksy (widely since rumoured to be Albarn’s friend, Robert Del Naja from Massive Attack) providing the perfect counterculture visuals to create a stylistic marriage made in heaven. Regardless of whether the rumours are true regarding Banksy’s identity, Albarn and Del Naja had forged a relationship previous to the Think Tank sessions, as the pair had become outspoken in opposition to the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and became key figures in the anti-war movement, culminating in the rally of over a million people in London. As is always the case with Albarn, the one minute and two second rant of We’ve Got A File On You had one eye on the future as it bears a strikingly foreboding message in relation to data sharing, big brother concepts and the notion of our own information being used against the individual. Whether Albarn predicted the privacy invasion perpetrated by Google, Facebook and Cambridge Analytica et al all those years ago, we may never know, but there is an eerie truth there.
Infamously, Graham Coxon’s sole contribution to the record (following a disagreement with producer, Norman Cook) was Battery In Your Leg. A song that must go down as one of the most underrated and heartfelt moments of Blur’s illustrious career. This separation provided Albarn and bassist, Alex James, more freedom though, which is no more evident than on On The Way To The Club – as James’ rumbling bass underpins a cacophonous avalanche of dub that swamps the lyrical content of loneliness.
The funk of Brothers and Sisters begins with a hollow, plucked guitar, before a body movement-inducing groove takes over and the trance-like chant of ‘Brothers and Sisters rebuild your life’ grips hold. While the magnificent melting pot of Moroccan Peoples’ Revolutionary Bowls Club – a song as gripping as it is bursting with influences, ideas and originality, before the record offers a moment calmness after the chaos that preceded, in one of the record’s most poignant moments: Sweet Song – with its beautifully echoing piano that gently trickles throughout – sits below Albarn’s voice, reminiscent in its fragility to that of Michael Stipe on the snapshot of perfection that is Nightswimming. He is often overlooked in regards his vocal capabilities, but it is such a vehicle for him to express his emotions, and is something for which he isn’t often given the credit he deserves.
Rarely does an album bring together such a ramshackle of different influences and ideas to perfectly capture a moment in time. Something Think Tank achieves in abundance. Of course, Think Tank isn’t perfect by any means. But, as with almost everything Albarn gets involved with, it is an album well ahead of its time.
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