I had a policy a while ago of never reading other reviews before writing mine.
Now, I’m addicted to music reviews – and movie reviews, book reviews, comic reviews, and basically any analysis of art I can get my hands on. I even read those usually asinine customer comments on Amazon, the ones filled with sentences like “OMG, ths CD rulz!” I can’t help it. I’m just naturally attracted to finding out what people think, especially about something as absolutely subjective as art.
So you can imagine how difficult it was for me to keep myself away from advance reviews of albums, especially since magazines like Rolling Stone seem to publish those reviews months prior to release these days. I was honestly afraid that reading other reviews might influence the way I experienced music, and that I might find myself unconsciously ripping off another reviewer, especially one who articulated my reactions more eloquently than I could.
But right around the time of Radiohead’s Kid A, I said hell with that. I read every advance five-star ejaculation I could find, looking for clues as to what to expect, and each drooling encapsulation only increased my anticipation. And then I absolutely hated the album. Years of continuing to absolutely hate it have convinced me that my initial reaction wasn’t just a matter of it not meeting overly high expectations, either. I just think Kid A sucks.
Since then, I devour advance reviews, fairly secure in the belief that they don’t influence my opinions. I realize this is a big ol’ rationalization, and that what’s really going on is more akin to a crack addict getting his daily fix, but I now consider advance reviews an essential part of my preparation process. If the notices are good, I’m excited to hear if they’re right, and if they’re terrible, I’m even more excited to hear if they’re wrong. Which, I guess, counts as outside influence, but I find I agree with most reviews only about 50 percent of the time.
Truthfully, I’m often most excited to hear albums that the reviewing community has, en masse, deemed unlistenable. There’s something appealing to me about monumentally bad records, especially from great artists, and since a large part of my process is looking for the artist’s original intention, train wrecks (especially purposeful train wrecks) are much more fun than smooth rides. Plus, occasionally, I will completely disagree with the universal negative opinion, and that’s even more fun.
Take, for example, the new Blur album, Think Tank. Just drop the band and album name into a search engine, and you’re guaranteed to encounter a mountain of lousy reviews – one star, D minus, what-were-they-thinking reviews. You can only read so many of those before you start bracing yourself for a disaster, and it’s not like the boys in Blur haven’t been heading that way recently. Their last two albums (the self-titled one and 13) were sloppy, overly long, underdeveloped messes that veered sharply from the twee pop they delivered in their early years. 13, in fact, deserves to be called unlistenable – its few delightful moments are drowned in an ocean of noise and repetition that doesn’t even pretend to be cohesive.
And then there’s Graham Coxon, the Lennon to Damon Albarn’s McCartney. Coxon left the band before Think Tank was finished, and he only contributed to one track, the closing “Battery In Your Leg.” With Coxon gone and Albarn spending a good chunk of his time in Gorillaz, his animated electronic madhouse side project with Dan the Automator, one could be forgiven for expecting a beat-happy pile of sludge this time out, which is exactly what the majority of reviewers have apparently heard.
This is definitely one of those cases where I’m not sure if I’m listening to the same album everyone else is, because my copy of Think Tank is absolutely marvelous.
Even with Coxon missing, this is easily the most complete Blur album since The Great Escape. Albarn has, of course, embraced technology in the years since 13, and under his direction Think Tank is loaded with electronic bleeps and blips. Here’s the thing, though – where most artists use technology for its cold and distant qualities, Blur has crafted perhaps the warmest and most emotionally resonant album they’ve ever made.
Most of Think Tank takes its time to unfold, wafting in on ambient waves and subtle computer drums. Virtually every time you think the electronics are going to take over, however, Albarn surprises you with a lovely vocal melody, or a delightfully human guitar line. If, for example, you’re dismayed by the twittering electronic percussion and how-low-can-you-go bass that opens “Ambulance” (and the album), just wait 30 seconds for Albarn’s vocal entrance. His beautiful tenor raises the song’s temperature immeasurably, and sends it straight for your heart.
Think Tank contains some of Albarn’s most comforting ballads, set to chilling landscapes of electronic sound which only seem to accentuate the warmth of his voice. Just listen to the acoustic guitar on “Out of Time,” or the saxophone arrangements on “Caravan,” or even the extended ambient outro of “On the Way to the Club” and you’ll hear technology given its most human foundation. The simple pleasure of “Sweet Song,” with its repeated piano sample, cannot be overstated either.
The album is, no doubt, experimental, but nearly all of the experiments work marvelously. There are misfires – the Fatboy Slim-produced “Crazy Beat” reenacts “Song 2” with a, um, crazy beat, and no one would have missed the minute-long pseudo-punk shoutalong “We’ve Got a File On You.” But the delirious successes far outweigh the miniscule failures, and the overall effect is low-key and cohesive. The band even saves the most human moment for the end – “Battery In Your Leg” is a slow piano caress full of the melodic melancholy that characterizes this record.
So what album are the other reviewers hearing? Think Tank is nowhere near the techno-driven mess you might expect from the avalanche of bad press it’s received. (In fact, I only found one review that seems to echo my reaction, and that’s at pitchforkmedia.com.) On the contrary, in fact, it joins Supergrass and Ester Drang in the upper echelon of 2003 releases, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it in the top five at year’s end.
I’m not sure anyone would have expected the diversity of the last few Blur releases, but it seems the band has finally hit upon something here. While many artists have taken a shine to technology recently, Blur has shown with Think Tank that they’re one of the few acts that understand it, and can use it to make their music more human, not less. This album is also the first time the band has sounded sure-footed since the early ’90s, and it bodes better than anyone could have expected for the Coxon-less Blur. But beyond all that, it’s just a beautiful record, one that deepens with each trip through. Think Tank does what all great art must do to be considered as such – it resonates, it affects, and it stays with you. You can’t ask for more than that.
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I’m going to eulogize Buffy fairly extensively next week, so I don’t want to say much about this week’s penultimate episode, except that it was splendid and a fitting goodbye to some of television’s most fully realized characters. The feces hits the spinning blade on Tuesday, and I remain blissfully spoiler-free, an act of will so difficult that it’s physically painful. Expect an overview and a fond farewell next time, and after that, a long (like, really long) column to catch up on recent releases, most of which don’t deserve their own spotlight, so they all have to share.
See you in line Tuesday morning.