The Great Escape

Blur's musical diaspora: beyond the Waterloo sunset, Africa!

LORD, HOW I LOVE a good Internet gossip blog. Like, check out what I yanked down the other day: DAMON ALBARN PLANS TO RECORD IN BAGHDAD. Quoth Albarn, "It makes me laugh every time I see how obsessed Oasis are with the Beatles and block all other influences." Yeah, bollocks to them. And bollocks to those chickenshits at Fox who wouldn't send me to Serbia to make my politically charged '90s nostalgia sitcom, Welcome Back Slobodan. Shooting on location "seems a bit risky," or so they snickered. Cowards. Dennis Franz had committed for the title role. Aaron Sorkin had already scripted six full episodes (I still have the Burger King bags he wrote 'em on). But, like they say in the ol' King James: Do not kick against the goad. Rupert Murdoch is such a dreamless little snit.

Not like Albarn: "I ain't got nothin' to be scared of," he says right away on the very first lyric to Blur's splendiferously great new Think Tank (Virgin), a globally inclined missive on life during wartime that's easily the best thing his band will ever dothat is, of course, if we except "Song 2," from way back when Albarn was content with drifting a dialectic between "You Really Got Me" and "Waterloo Sunset," safe in the assumption that Smarter Than Noel was a distinction worth exploiting for commercial use. But you can only flog that wog so long. Britpop's cultural moment went on slow fizzle well before the band's last offering, 1999's 13, on which punky guitarist Graham Coxon started losing interest and Blur's public schoolboy perk started devolving into a collage mirage.

Something had to give. And so it did. But in rock 'n' roll we always learn to get before we give, and it's important to reconsider how Albarn originally got his. Early Blur reinvented Swinging London at the cusp of wan imperium. "Tracy Jacks" was as archetypal as Ray Davies' Terry and Julie, only, for Albarn, they were crossing over the river of midlife into a Mike Leigh coma. This was why Blur were always better than Oasis; they got Britpop's recapitulation of glories past as both Beatle-bloat insiders and Bowie- manqu頳ubcultural splitters. (It didn't hurt that they weren't afraid of the old dance-pop in-out, eitherknow what I mean, nudge-nudge.)

PERHAPS IT WAS through this same sense of post-Cool Britannia displacement that Albarn found himself wasting the end of the century with hip-hop oddball Dan "the Automator" Nakamura in the meta-pop cartoon Gorillaz, wandering the PopMart from Studio One to the Limited Too, humming a beatbox brood that went a little something like, "We're the flung generation, and we've got nothing to say." And I'm guessing it was the Goz surprise pop hit "Clint Eastwood" that gave Albarn the stones to take up his white man's burden and his melodica and travel to Mali in 2001, where he fooled around with guitarist Afel Bocoum and kora master Toumani Diabate (who'd recently done something similar with Taj Mahal on 1999's wonderful Kulanjan). The globe-trotting record that came out of said fooling, Mali Music, could have sunk like a hipster's African Queen, but its loopy dubs and meandering digitalia, dust-bowl authenticity, and water-bong Orientalism were winning because of, not in spite of, their day-tripping author's stoned obliviousness. Albarn's West Africa fetish was less like the politicized indie kids of early-'80s U.K. punk who fell for South African "township jive" than the dashiki-geeky early-'90s rare groovers who turned Fela into a digable planet.

And I'm cool with that. I never really needed Little Boy Blur to be Franz Fanon. "My eyes are blue, there's nothing I can do," he confides in "On the Way to the Club," less a globe-trotter's admission of postcolonial complicity then an escape hatch out of the same, straight-down-a-rabbit-hole-of-what-does-it-all-mean indecision rock. The Clash might be a better comparison; Sandinista!'s everywhere-all-over wanderlust is a good touchstone for Think Tank, recorded on a boy's holiday in Morocco with Fatboy Slim jobbing the knobs on a track or two. "We weren't little Englanders. We had the suss to embrace the world," Joe Strummer once said of his band's 1980 triple album. "I always saw it as a record for people on oil rigs or Arctic stations," Mick Jones noted. Think Tank won't get you through a polar winter, but it'll do you right on a moonlit night. It's not a deep record, it's a cute record, a little droopy in spots, tired at times, but beautiful and hopeful, too. Tender is the shite.

ALBARN MAY HAVE made the London tabloids by chanting down Downing Street, but this is still a guy who chalks up his geopolitics to "The desert needs a beer/And if we go and blow it up now, we will disappear." (The desert could also use a WNBA franchise, but I guess that's a Le Tigre review.) Like all aging sensitive alt-dudes, Albarn's got one thing on his mind: being an aging sensitive alt-dude. "I'm not that strong/Hope you feel the same," he sings on "Sweet Song" as strings and piano radiate suiteness and lite.

Think of it as a Sandinista! of the self: Albarn using Other music to shine a little love light on his own "darkened soul"beneath the dub, the glitch, the North African hand drums, ramble-tamble Ali Farka Toure-style guitars, and misty Malian undergrooves, you get the same ol' silly club songs ("Brothers and Sisters") and punk-rock cheese-puffs (the minute-long Oi send-up "We've Got a File on You") of his misspent mid-'90s. You remember, back when the tunes came easy and Justine Frischmann was still a superhero. I don't blame Albarn a bit for the indulgence. In his mossy interiority, he makes the geopolitical personal and does what we all really want to do when Aaron Brown gets you down: Turn off the telly and drift away on memory blissa loaf of bread, a jug of wine, a secondhand sampler, and thou.

"TV's dead and there ain't no war in my head/You look very beautiful to me," he sings against the sky-blue guitars and wooly trip-hop in "Good Song." Damon Albarn does not have much to say about the world except that he'd like it to stick around a little longer and you to stick around with it. It's no small dream.

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