Much has been made of the musical and thematic similarities shared by Blur’s second, third, and fourth albums (Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape, respectively). All three records contained character sketches of life in John Major’s Britain, punctuated with music-hall flourishes and memorable choruses.
Like all good ideas, however, Blur’s Anglo-centric approach eventually ran out of steam. The band’s final three full-length records included more introspective lyrics and incorporated a far wider palate of sounds. We’re examining them in a three-part edition of our Backspin series, Backspin: Blur. Beginning with their self-titled 1997 LP on Tuesday and then 1999’s 13 on Friday, we conclude with 2003’s Think Tank today.
In the decade that has passed since Think Tank’s release, no one has been able to provide a definitive answer as to why guitarist Graham Coxon appeared on just one track, “Battery In Your Leg.” Even in reunion bliss, the band is cagey on the subject. What is known, however, is that Coxon checked into the Priory, seeking treatment for alcoholism and depression in late 2001. Around that same time, preliminary sessions for the album began at Damon Albarn’s West London studio. At some point in late 2001 or early 2002, Coxon stopped turning up and decided to focus more on recovery, raising his daughter, and his burgeoning solo career.
So then there were three…
From then on, it was Damon Albarn, Dave Rowntree, and Alex James and a rotating cast of guest producers. The band continued recording in London and then moved to a Moroccan villa in summer 2002. They would return to England in the fall to finalize the album under the shadow of the run-up to the Iraq war. In total, it took 18 months to make Think Tank, the longest gestation period of any Blur album.
Engineer Ben Hillier, who’d worked with the band on 13, was one of few constants during the recording of this album. He had the unenviable job of helping the band sort through the massive pile of music that was accumulated during the recording of Think Tank. In a lengthy interview with Sound on Sound, Hillier revealed that the Chemical Brothers and Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) contributed to these early sessions. Even William Orbit, who’d produced 13, tried working on a couple of tracks.
During these early tracking sessions, it became evident that the absence of Coxon created more space for bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree. Indeed, this album grooves a lot more than previous releases. And Damon Albarn’s minimalist, Afro-Arab style of guitar playing certainly lent itself to the rhythm section being more noticeable. (Albarn’s performance on “Good Song” bears the influence of Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore.) Some of the dubbier sounds that Albarn had been experimenting with Gorillaz made its way into Blur’s work. Whereas Blur and 13 were heavily influenced by Coxon’s tastes (mostly American lo-fi indie), Think Tank was directed by Albarn’s excursions into electronic music and West African pop. Without Coxon, this record had much more in common with Gorillaz or Mali Music.
In an effort to mix a couple of songs and complete the growing pile of semi-finished sessions, the band relocated to Marrakesh, Morocco. Now, as exotic and romantic as it seems for a pop group to venture abroad to record, there are always roadblocks (e.g., Paul McCartney’s and Wings’ demon-hell-ride in Lagos, Nigeria for the recording of 1973’s Band on the Run). Making the actual trek proved to quite a taxing endeavor. An entire studio’s equipment had to be sourced, rented, and trucked overland and then shipped across the Mediterranean. Hilariously, everything was impounded upon arrival because of the lack of proper customs forms. When the cables, boards, and mics were finally liberated, the band had lost a week’s work. But the problems didn’t end there! Once settled, the Blur camp had to battle poor acoustics in the makeshift control room, blistering Saharan heat, and repeated bouts of food poisoning. (Because the bathroom was so far away from the control room, a bicycle was kept nearby in the event that someone’s stomach started bubbling.)
Despite the obstacles, the group’s five weeks in Marrakesh were productive. Fatboy Slim returned to the fold, and with his help, the songs “Crazy Beat” and “Gene by Gene” were completed and made the final cut. The group also took advantage of the opportunity to record outdoors: the drums for “Crazy Beat” and the string overdubs for “Out of Time” were recorded in the courtyard, while most of the vocals were done outdoors.
And yet, there was still work to be done. Which was just as well, as the late summer heat made doing work during the day impossible. It was decided that the band would do the final push in a converted barn in Devon. It was during that rainy fall that most of the editing was done, and the album actually began to take shape. Work was completed that November, but only because Hillier insisted on fixing a deadline. As he put it, “It was very much like a mixing session but with extra recording. I don’t really like to break up the making of a record into strictly distinct phases: tracking, mixing, and so on. I like to be free to add stuff all the way along. But I decided eventually that the only way we were ever going to finish it, because we were all having such a good time in the studio… was if I set a date.”
In the time that had passed since 13’s release, Albarn began a relationship with artist Suzy Winstanley and had a daughter. As a result, Think Tank occasionally glows with the warmth of new love. The album’s opener, “Ambulance,” serves as a fitting introduction to Albarn’s newfound happiness, but also to the band’s new sound. The rest of the album’s lyrics, however, are not so blissful. A feeling of tension and dread colors tracks like “Out of Time” and “Jets.” Certainly anyone who remembers the year between 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War can remember the pervasive sense of fear. And where Albarn’s previous references to drugs had once been oblique, he was now being very clear. “On the Way to the Club” and “Brothers and Sisters” both make explicit references to drug use, the former talking about falling down a K(etamine) hole, while the chorus of the latter proclaims that “we’re all drug takers, give us something tonight.”
Upon its release in May 2003, Think Tank received near-universal critical praise. Many lauded its adventurous sounds and the continuing evolution in Albarn’s lyrics. The group would successfully tour the album with backing vocalists, multi-instrumentalists, and Simon Tong of the Verve filling in for Coxon. But because of Coxon’s absence, and perhaps because of the lingering laddish tendencies of some of their fans, Think Tank raised some confusion. By tastefully introducing elements of free jazz, African guitar music, and downtempo, Blur uncoupled themselves from the legacy of the first Stone Roses album. Instead, here was an album that had more of a Vanishing Point- or Blue Lines-vibe. Perhaps this was a bit much for some of their lager-eater fans, but Think Tank is still a pop record, just one that flows in a much more laid-back manner.