Due to some weird accident of timing, we’re currently getting a masterclass on how – and how not – to sustain a long career in pop. Jarvis is back under new (dis)guise Relaxed Muscle, Radiohead return with an album that disappointingly occupies the same musical space as the last two, Oasis bestride the world like an arthritic Colossus and then there’s Blur.
They’ve always known the value of keeping one step ahead, of having a new ‘concept’ for each record, which has always made them objects of suspicion by the rock authenticity police. This time, however, change has been forced on them by the departure of Graham Coxon, and the ‘concept’ is not Damon’s daughter (as Justine Frischmann once tartly claimed it would be – actually, maybe that was Gorillaz) but Africa and anti-stardom.
Now that Gorillaz have sold millions of records without Damon even having to show his face, Blur claim to be disdainful of the pop process, of presenting themselves as personalities. This makes sense when contrasted with inescapable pop trasherati like Victoria Beckham, and the fact that Blur are no longer the fresh-faced sex symbols of yore. But it’s really no different from attitudes of snooty Seventies prog rockers, who thought the normal pop modes of communication (being on Top Of The Pops, releasing singles) were somehow beneath them. So ‘Out Of Time’, their most straightforwardedly touching single for ages, has a video Blur don’t even appear in, two gorgeous ballads are given the dismissive titles ‘Good Song’ and ‘Sweet Song’ and the album opens with ‘Ambulance’, which on first listen sounds exactly like something from David Bowie‘s dreadful ‘Heathen’. “We could have made a pop album,” Blur seem to be saying, “but that would have been too easy.”
Sigh. But despite Damon removing two “potential radio smashes” from ‘Think Tank’ because they “didn’t fit in” (because he was saving them for Gorillaz, more like), it’s still accessible and enjoyable despite, you often feel, the intentions of its creators. While ‘Jet’ is toe-curling free-jazz toss and the Norman Cook-assisted ‘Crazy Beat’ sounds like four old yobs making an exhibition of themselves in a disco, Norm’s other track ‘Gene By Gene’ is an effortless pop gem (with a title which probably doesn’t refer to Liam Gallagher’s youngest child). Then there’s the summery, Arabian side of the album, with ‘Caravan’ and ‘On The Way To The Club’ both luxuriating in the kind of grace and mystery which dissolves cynicism on impact.
Blur’s “and this is me” moment is the closing ‘Battery In Your Leg’, the only song still featuring Graham Coxon (‘Blur featuring Graham Coxon’ – how R&B). “I’ve got nothing to rely on/I’ve broken every bone,” sings Damon frailly, as Graham chimes out the saddest-sounding guitar riff ever, so loud it obliterates the singing. It’s a hugely apt and moving epitaph.
God knows what will happen next – there’s certainly no sense of urgency and ambition in Blur themselves. Yet against the odds, ‘Think Tank’ is a success, a record which might not mean much to Strokes fans but which shows Blur’s creative spark is undimmed even while their stomach for the pop fight fades. After all this time, they still demand to be heard.