Damon Albarn ends the year with his place in pop restored. He spent 2002 faking hip-hop attitude, snarling at photographers and hiding behind the anonymous cartoon silhouettes of the Gorillaz, whenever he deigned to write a hit song.
This year, his initial reluctance to rejoin Blur, and the fractious exit of guitarist Graham Coxon when he did, has resulted in unexpected, low-key triumph. Shorn of the desire for globe-conquering success, Blur's new album, Think Tank, is more sensuously relaxed than anything they've done before.
Drawing on its Moroccan recording location, it combines Arabic, African-American and English sensibilities in a purely musical riposte to George Bush's divisive world order. A triumphant headline set at Reading this summer showed that the British public supported this new attitude.
Albarn's extra-curricular activities have 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 solo gig was in part a tribute to this adopted home. With DJs such as the ex-Specials singer Terry Hall, this west London club has been handed over to the resistant axis of evil-transgressing spirit world music now suggests.
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 Demo Crazy - barely recorded sketches of songs - suggests the anonymous direction that Albarn half wants to go now. Taking the stage with a three-piece band and a low-tech sampler, wires hanging from its back, Albarn is dressed in a baseball cap and shabby blue sweater. Asking us all to sit down, he establishes a hippyish atmosphere early. We'll be hearing "ideas for songs'', he tells us. "Five Star Life'' is the first of these tunes worth hearing, a rough draft on guitar and clarinet, about fame's downside.
It's followed by "Half a song we stretched a bit, because it's nice'': a wisp made of acoustic guitar strums and high harmonies, the kind of tune Blur specialise in.
"Not stupid rap song'' is next, its skimpy lyrics over before they begin. "If I finish that, I'll get someone who can rap'' Albarn concludes. A promising African instrumental and a ragged ballad follow. It's been a harmless, revelation-free indulgence - nothing more.Reuse content