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Think Tank: How A Three-Piece Blur Made Their Most Adventurous Album
In Depth

Think Tank: How A Three-Piece Blur Made Their Most Adventurous Album

Despite a depleted line-up and band tensions, 2003’s ‘Think Tank’ featured some of Blur’s most daring and beautiful music.

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In the four years between their 1999 art-rock masterpiece, 13, and 2003’s Think Tank, an awful lot had changed in Blur’s world. By 2000, frontman Damon Albarn’s musical interests had long outgrown the constraints of Britpop – that year he travelled to Mali to play with West African musicians on an Oxfam-sponsored trip, the fruits of which were released as the 2002 album Mali Music; and he had also began working with cartoonist Jamie Hewlett and producer Dan The Automator on what would eventually become Gorillaz’s debut album Released in 2001, the latter record was a huge hit, with worldwide sales eclipsing anything Albarn had managed with Blur. Not only leading to tensions with his original group, Albarn’s commitments with Gorillaz – particularly in the US, where Blur had received variable success – pushed planned sessions for a new Blur album back to late 2001.

Listen to Think Tank here.

A three-piece for the first time

Guitarist Graham Coxon had also been busy, releasing three increasingly accomplished solo albums in quick succession – The Sky Is Too High (1998), The Golden D (2000), and Crow Sit On Blood Tree (2001). Meanwhile, longstanding personal problems had come to a head and, in November 2001 – just as sessions for the Blur record were due to start – Coxon was admitted to the Priory Hospital in South West London, for 28 days, to be treated for alcoholism.

When Blur finally began sessions with producer Ben Hillier, at Albarn’s 13 Studio, for what would become Think Tank, they were a three-piece for the first time. Coxon rejoined the group in February and May 2002, playing on Battery In Your Leg, The Outsider, Morricone and Some Glad Morning (the first of which would end up on Think Tank, while the others emerged as B-sides), but he found the studio time “awkward” and decided to part ways with the band in August. Back to a three-piece, Albarn, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree travelled to Marrakesh, Morocco, to finish the album, with Hillier and Norman “Fatboy Slim” Cook on production duties.

Forging a new sound

While, for many, Blur without Coxon is an oxymoron, to their credit, the band didn’t look to replace their inventive linchpin. Instead, they forged a new sound, giving space that would usually have been filled with layers of guitar to electronic beats and synths while placing more emphasis on groove – as on Think Tank’s opener, the stunning Ambulance, which begins with a stuttering beat and a dub-like bassline before sound effects and horn lines enter the fray, with Albarn’s plaintive vocal ushering in the song proper. Tellingly, his first words are “I ain’t got nothing to be scared of” – this was daring music for a band in Blur’s position to be making.

So, too, in a more quiet and thoughtful way, was Think Tank’s lead single, Out Of Time, which proved that this this newly configured line-up were capable of turning out some of the best Blur songs. What could have been a straightforward acoustic ballad is instead pulled along by a languid groove, with found sounds and an Arabic orchestra embellishing one of Albarn’s most beautiful songs, not to mention a stunning vocal performance. Unrest in the world – the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraq war – underpinned the lyrics (and, indeed, much of Think Tank, including the drowsily gorgeous highlights Good Song and Sweet Song), as Albarn found a way to make the political personal.

A unique and adventurous gem

Elsewhere, Gorillaz’s influence loomed large on the likes of On The Way To The Club, Brothers And Sisters, Jets and Gene By Gene, which moved the hips more than any previous Blur songs, while the influence of Albarn favourites The Clash was evident on Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club, which could have been a lost Sandinista! outtake.

Despite all this, Coxon’s sole contribution to Think Tank stole the spotlight. His tempestuous guitar parts on the closing Battery In Your Leg add breathtaking emotional clout to Albarn’s already heartbreaking song about his relationship with the troubled guitarist.

Happily, the album – released on 5 May 2003 – wasn’t the four-piece Blur’s swansong. After reuniting for live gigs in 2008, they continued to play together and release singles on a sporadic basis until 2015’s Coxon-helmed The Magic Whip. Still, despite the fraught circumstances surrounding its creation, Think Tank stands proud in Blur’s discography as a unique and adventurous gem.

Check out our best Blur songs to see which Think Tank tracks made the cut.

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