What with the guitarist Graham Coxon leaving the band, Damon Albarn's cartoon outfit Gorillaz becoming more successful, globally, than Blur themselves, and Albarn's attention drawn further afield with his Mali Music project, Blur fans can consider themselves fortunate that Think Tank was ever made at all.
Recorded in London, Marrakesh and Devon over the past year, Blur's seventh album reflects all the above factors, in varying degrees. With Coxon appearing only on the melancholy closing ballad, "Battery in Your Leg", it's less prey to his abrasive indie riffing than to Albarn's bluesy, jazzy guitar parts. The African influence surfaces in fragments of kora or oud, notably in the single "Out Of Time", where the guitar loop serves to link National steel-guitar country-blues with West African guitar modes. And in its laid-back experimentalism, Think Tank owes as much to Gorillaz' free-roaming dub-hop as to any past Blur release: a fug of dope-smoke hangs over the lethargically atmospheric "On the Way to the Club" and quirky singalong "Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club", both little more than half-formed ideas.
The most focused pieces are those on which either William Orbit or Norman Cook adds his five-penn'orth. The Orbit-enhanced "Sweet Song" is just that, with a lovely ethereal tone and angelic banked harmonies support Albarn singing, "I believe, I believe, I believe love is the only one", his voice tailing off dispiritedly in contradiction of the lyric. Cook is surely responsible for the infectious garage undercarriage to the looped squeaks and twangs of "Gene by Gene". It's less easy to see what he brought to "Crazy Beat", a second cousin to "Song 2", with its ironic swagger undercut by the distorted vocoder squawk of the title hook. It's one of two nods to Blur's indie past, the other being the abrupt "We've Got a File on You"; but even there, a restless eclecticism blends Wire's punk formalism with the B-52s' pop archness – in less than a minute.
The best tracks move towards a voodoo-swamp-soul trip-hop sound akin to Dr John's Gris-Gris, such as the brooding bohemian anthem, "Brothers And Sisters", and "Caravan", which has the rough, organic quality of Dylan's Time out of Mind. "Sometimes, everything is easy," sings Albarn on the latter. But sometimes it can be too easy: witness the fragmentary "Jets", where etiolated country-blues guitar and a choppy organ grow big bass muscles before being replaced by a synth and sax break that's like an arid Sun Ra; too "cool" to get involved – the album's main failing. They're trying to stay experimental, but a decent song would be nice.