I can see clearly now (I Think)

Blur drifts further from the mainstream with Think Tank

Being a British rock star in the U.S. must be frustrating at times. From the moment the Beatles stepped off the plane in 1964, all the way to the 1980s, being big over there usually meant being big over here.

By the 1990s though, tastes had changed. Big over there didn't often translate into big over here, unless like Rod Stewart, Sting or the Beatles (whose three Anthology collections each hit No. 1 on the Billboard album charts in the '90s), you were grandfathered in.

Blur, one of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling British bands of the 1990s, have had a particularly rough time getting attention in the States. They've released seven albums since 1991, one of which, 1994's Parklife, is widely credited with kickstarting the British guitar-rock revival of the mid-'90s known as Britpop — a phenomenon whose primary enduring legacy in the U.S. is that every cover band in every bar knows "Wonderwall" by Oasis.

Blur's American prospects briefly surged in 1997 with the single off their fifth release, Blur, the Nirvana-pastiche "Song 2" (the one with the chorus that goes "Woo-hoo!"), which received heavy airplay and even popped up as background music on TV shows. The 99X crowd pounced on Blur and "Song 2" as flavors of the month. But when the month passed, so did the crowds.

To produce their follow-up, enter techno-pioneer William Orbit, fresh from masterminding Madonna's 1998 Grammy-winning Ray of Light, her biggest-selling album in nearly a decade. With Orbit on board, it looked for a moment as if the group was set to make a serious grab at the mainstream attention in the U.S. that it pretty much took for granted in the U.K.

But the hit machine never got off the ground. Instead, on 13 (1999), Blur used Orbit's spacey signature to deconstruct their sound and, in a sudden change of direction, turned inward, reverting to the self-consciously experimental — some would say difficult or unlistenable — timbre of its art-school days. Gone were the chirpy, Kinks-like, third-person character studies once cruelly dubbed "chimney-sweep music" by Oasis' Liam Gallagher. Gone too was the raw but infectious guitar pop of "Song 2." Though the album spawned one major hit (the gospel-choired love song, "Tender") and a couple of minor hits (all in the U.K.), American radio and the Billboard charts failed to take notice.

So why does Think Tank, their seventh studio album, move the band further away from mainstream rock than it has ever been — here or in the U.K.? Perhaps it's because now that singer and primary songwriter Damon Albarn has found American and worldwide chart success with cartoon hip-hoppers Gorillaz, he no longer feels as much pressure to "break" America with Blur. Another possibility is the departure of founding guitarist Graham Coxon (he appears on only one track).

In Coxon's absence, Think Tank leaves the guitarist's space unfilled, substituting mumbly song sketches and melodies superimposed over Africanized beats ("Brothers and Sisters," "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club," "Jets") and sounding like a less-frenetic cousin to David Byrne and Brian Eno's "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts."

No Blur album is complete without at least a couple of ambitious ballads, and Think Tank is no exception. The sad but nimble "Out of Time," augmented by a small Moroccan orchestra, is Blur's tenderest song since "Tender," and out-tendering both is the yearning "Sweet Song," with its looping music-box melody and distant, lonely piano line.

To Blur devotees, though, the jewel in the Tank is the album's closer, "Battery In Your Leg." In this elegy to the missing Coxon, singer Damon Albarn signals support for a departed friend ("But you know you're not alone, you can be with me"), while real-life departed friend Coxon's guitar screams in the distance. Nearly operatic, it's perhaps the most soulful song of Blur's career.


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