Damon Albarn, Ladbroke Grove Neighbourhood, London

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The Independent Culture

Damon Albarn ends the year with his place in pop restored. He spent 2002 faking hip-hop attitude, snarling at photographers and hiding behind Gorillaz' anonymous cartoon silhouettes whenever he deigned to write a hit song. This year, the singer's initial reluctance to rejoin Blur, and the fractious exit of guitarist Ian Coxon when he did, has resulted in unexpected, low-key triumph.

Shorn of the desire for globe-conquering success (which Albarn now reserves for Gorillaz), Blur's new album, Think Tank, is more sensuously relaxed than anything they've done before. Drawing inspiration from its Moroccan recording location, it combines Arabic, African-American and English sensibilities in a purely musical riposte to George Bush's divisive world order. An easily triumphant headline set at Reading shows that the British public supports this new attitude.

Albarn's extracurricular activities have importantly centred on west London's Honest Jon's record label and shop - both of which focus on global sounds far off Britpop's beaten track. Tonight's imperfectly kept "secret", solo gig is in part a tribute to this adopted home: the venue, supported by DJs such as the ex-Specials icon Terry Hall, has been handed over to the resistant, axis of evil-transgressing spirit that world music now suggests. It's notable, too, that Hall (another culture-clashing artist, who in collaboration with Mushtaq, the former DJ for the British dance collective Fun-Da-Mental, made an album, Hour of Two Lights, with Arabic and Jewish musicians earlier this year) played in support at Albarn's gig.

However, Albarn's own place in such a movement is open to question. Less a celebrity or pop star than when he celebrated "parklife", he now exists to the left of true celebrity: too famous to disappear back into the crowd, but too aggravating to appear in Heat. His new, limited-edition album Democrazy - roughly recorded sketches of songs - suggests the anonymous direction in which Albarn is now tentatively going.

Taking the stage with a three-piece band and a low-tech sampler, wires hanging from its back, Albarn was dressed in a baseball cap and shabby blue sweater. Asking us all to sit down, he established a hippyish, Art Lab-like atmosphere early. We'd be hearing "ideas for songs", he told us, half-apologetically. "Five Star Life" was the first of these tunes worth hearing, a rough draft on guitar and clarinet, about fame's downside. It was followed by, "half a song we stretched a bit, because it's nice," - a wisp made from acoustic guitar strums and high harmonies, the kind of tune Blur specialise in, but only half-complete here.

"Not Stupid Rap Song" was next, its skimpy lyrics over before they'd begun. "If I finish that, I'll get someone who can rap," Albarn wisely concluded. A pretty, promising, minute-long African instrumental and a ragged, Syd Barrett-like alienation ballad followed that. It had been a harmless, revelation-free indulgence - nothing more.

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