The end of a century had come and gone. Or, as another British band once put it, a new decade was fully upon us. Britpop, the era Blur had helped define, was thoroughly in the rearview. Its principal acts were fracturing or wandering. By the early ’00s, Pulp had returned with a final post-script, We Love Life, then called it a day. Oasis were in wilderness years, flailing from experimentation on 2000’s Standing On The Shoulder Of Giants to treading water on 2002’s Heathen Chemistry. New voices — Doves, Elbow, Travis, Coldplay — were putting their mark on British rock music. Blur had already given their arc as powerful a final statement as you could imagine for back in 1999, with 13, and Damon Albarn was now soaring on the success of his new band Gorillaz. We didn’t quite know it then, but there wasn’t any guarantee Blur would continue to exist — and there was legitimate reason to wonder if it should. What, exactly, was Blur’s role meant to be in the ’00s?
Blur had already left the past behind. After completing their “Life” trilogy at the zenith of Britpop, they pivoted to American indie influences on their self-titled 1997 rebrand. Afterwards, 13 was a melancholic masterpiece full of experiments. They’d pushed their limits. But at the same time, their individual interests were diverging. As Albarn’s fascination with Middle Eastern and Northern African music blossomed, and as his genre free-for-all in Gorillaz garnered a whole new legion of fans, some of his bandmates weren’t that impressed. Alex James made dismissive comments about Gorillaz; Coxon once derisively told a journalist, “Damon’s getting all World Music on us.” Yet at the same time, when Albarn himself discussed returning to Blur post-13, post-’90s, post-Gorillaz, he was actually talking about bringing Blur back towards the mainstream. He cited Parklife and discussed recapturing that sort of accessibility for Blur’s next act. That is… not how things went.
A band that once released four albums in four years in just four years now had taken some time off. Four years after 13, Albarn was apparently reluctant to return, and in general the band was breaking down. When they did reconvene, Coxon was in rehab. After he got out, he showed up to the studio for a few sessions, but things were strained, weird. He quit the band, and the remaining three members continued on without him, jamming out Albarn’s ideas and chasing the muse from England down to Morocco and back, working with Ben Hillier but also throwing songs over to William Orbit and Fatboy Slim. These were prolific sessions, resulting in nearly 30 tracks. Twenty years ago this Friday, they emerged from that process with Think Tank — a shadowy and divisive collection that was, for some time, the final word from Blur.
History is littered with albums like these — an end that comes after the real end has already passed. It usually happens with acts that are together for a relatively contained amount of time — think more Joe Strummer’s misled continuation of the Clash with Cut The Crap, and less the Stones soldiering on as an institution across decades. These are albums that might happen after a primary songwriter or member has left, or died — like the often memory-holed Doors albums they tried to make after Jim Morrison’s death. When Pulp had released We Love Life in 2002, it already had this sense that it was somehow separate from their ‘90s work, that it was an epilogue. But with Blur as a trio and Albarn in near-complete creative control, Think Tank is more akin to those other albums — not so much an epilogue as a hangover, something fans could struggle to see in the same narrative as the peak years.
It’s easy to look at Think Tank as a sort of stealth Albarn solo endeavor, or something more related to Gorillaz than Blur. It’s certainly more of a piece with Albarn’s experiments from the era, from Gorillaz to Mali Music, than it is with most of what Blur had done in the past, even on 13. With Coxon gone, Albarn took over most guitar duties, leading to spindly leads and lots of acoustics, all couched within music that forged further into beats and synths and a generally strung-out, electronic aesthetic. James and Dave Rowntree were far from prisoners here though. The pivot towards more groove-oriented music allowed them to shine as a rhythm section, and both hyped up the album upon its arrival. Albarn himself cooled on it over time, telling NME “There’s some bollocks on there” in 2015.
It’s true that Think Tank’s adventurousness meant that not everything worked. “Crazy Beat” is one of Blur’s lowest moments, a cartoonish retread of ideas they achieved better elsewhere. Blur’s albums had often been sprawling epics, with room for a few quirky detours. But on Think Tank, tracks that were otherwise serviceable or cool enough — like “Jets” or “Gene By Gene” — contributed to the druggy amble of the album in the wrong way.
But because Think Tank hasn’t been quite as hallowed as its predecessors, it also now has some of the most underrated gems in Blur’s catalogue. “Ambulance” continued Blur’s penchant for excellent openers that immediately established the landscape of the forthcoming album — a moody and alluring track building to an infectious synth-bass riff. Mellow tracks like “Out Of Time” and “Sweet Song” displayed one of the best versions of Albarn — haggard and sad and aging, but still with a sharp melodic sensibility. While a lot of the album was influenced by Albarn’s travels, and his reactions to the political climate of the Iraq War era, he was also dancing around the dark side of nightlife and partying — leading to the gorgeous-then-haunting one-two punch of “On The Way To The Club” and “Brothers And Sisters” at the album’s center. (Also, shout out to the brief rave-up “We’ve Got A File On You,” the namesake of Stereogum’s interview franchise.)
Even before Blur disappeared into the ether following Think Tank, there was something elegiac about the album. The single Coxon contribution that made the album was closer “Battery In Your Leg,” making the end of the album a poignant and explicit goodbye to Blur as we knew it. A hidden track, “Me, White Noise,” followed. It found Blur reuniting with Phil Daniels, the guy from “Parklife,” but this time over a zonked dance track. That in of itself had some sense of finality — a nod to the glories of their past while obliterating that past. If Blur’s story had really ended here, it would’ve been a fitting conclusion — bleary-eyed, spilling out over the edges, the sound of three men trying to continue on and one that very much had his eyes elsewhere on the horizon.
For a moment, Think Tank was presented as a new beginning rather than a swan song. But after touring without Coxon, the band quietly went inactive. Albarn spent the ’00s reaching new heights with Gorillaz and starting other projects like The Good, The Bad, And The Queen. Eventually, the true Blur lineup reunited in the late ’00s, and in 2015 they released The Magic Whip. Even as Blur gear up for more shows this year, who knows if we’ll ever get another album out of them. For now, The Magic Whip is at least a slightly more appropriate finale — all four of them present, revisiting ideas and sounds that spanned their entire career through a middle-aged lens.
Before The Magic Whip came out, it really seemed like there would never be another Blur full-length. So while Think Tank is now an erstwhile conclusion, it still plays like the collapse it was. This was a Blur in search of who and what they were supposed to be now. By venturing out to sea, it seems the conclusion they reached was that they shouldn’t be anything. It’s poetic to revisit Think Tank as a listless, transfixing implosion at the end of a legendary run. But with everything that’s happened since, it’s more heartwarming to embrace the small reunions — to have a Blur with a sense of closure and triumph.