It's a tricky time for Blur to be releasing a new LP, with all these damp-eyed Britpop retrospectives about. First there was Live Forever, the feature-length documentary on Cool Britannia which came out in March; now there is John Harris's The Last Party. No artist likes to be defined by previous work, no matter how iconic - check Damien Hirst's barbed comments on his old shark-in-a-tank making cultural waves once more.
Will Blur ever be free of "Britpop" and "versus Oasis"? Maybe not in tabloid-land, but as musicians, the four-turned-three-piece shrugged off such easy tagging years ago. Damon Albarn (singer, songwriter), Graham Coxon (guitar), Alex James (bass) and Dave Rowntree (drums) have effected at least four huge musical shifts in their seven-album, 14-year career. From 1991 and Leisure's baggy-lite, they swerved into awkward mod noise on Modern Life Is Rubbish in 1993, then hopped slap into the mainstream the following year with Parklife's era-defining pop. Sweep through Parklife's sour sister The Great Escape, great leap sideways into scuzz-art-rock with Blur, twist and warp and howl into 1999's tortured, experimental, great 13. Since then, we've had a greatest hits LP in 2000, accompanied by its odd single "Music Is My Radar".
After 13, Blur took a break, mostly because the guys were about to kill each other. (Nothing new there: after The Great Escape, Albarn and Coxon were at such loggerheads that they wrote letters to each other rather than speak face to face.) Albarn, the star and driving force behind the band, went off on a tangent of his own. With the Tank Girl artist Jamie Hewlett, he created Gorillaz, a cartoon pop group that charmed the world with its cheery reggae-pop and sold six million LPs - three times more than any Blur LP had ever managed. Then he took off for Mali on an Oxfam trip. I was with him when he went; the experience of improvising with musicians such as the kora player Toumani Diabate blew him away and connected with him deeply. Returning with 40 hours of recorded noise, Albarn worked on it for almost a year to create the soundscape that is the Mali Music LP.
Essentially, Albarn has moved into the sun. He's left the dark days of his old relationship with the Elastica frontwoman, Justine Frischmann, and settled with the artist Suzi Winstanley and their child, Missy. He's moved away from the self-conscious self-loathing of a pop frontman to the shared joy of collaborative, semi-anonymous projects. Even his musical influences have got hotter: there's Mali Music, and Gorillaz the album is based on Caribbean beats. Blur's new LP, Think Tank, is suffused with this same loose-limbed, sunshine energy. Recorded in Morocco, finished in London, it's the first Blur LP you can play on a summer's evening.
The warmth-on-the-skin effect is enhanced because Coxon, Blur's awkward and gifted guitarist, is absent from this album. Though his influence was perhaps overstated in reviews of 13, Coxon's anxious sonic questions have always provided a natural foil to Albarn's (and James's) tendency towards swingy pop. He's out, though, whether temporarily or permanently. Actually, this may be the first ever genuine "musical differences" split in a band: Coxon's blood runs with western, white-boy art-rock; he lives in his head; I doubt he's ever danced in his life. He appears on just one track on Think Tank, the mournful "Battery In Your Leg", the lyrics of which are clearly about his and Albarn's broken friendship (they have known each other since school). Coxon is working on his third solo LP. He has pronounced Think Tank "underdeveloped and techy".
He has a point. On the first few listens, Think Tank seems to be all over the place. Only "Crazy Beat" (the next single?) and "Gene By Gene", the tracks co-produced by Norman "Fatboy Slim" Cook, seem focused, or produced, in the pop sense of the word. The rest of the LP stops and starts, with muffled vocals, tunes arriving from far-off lands, strange instruments meandering crazily, wafting past like trailing incense. But, but, but . . . Like 13, which took at least five listens to reveal its inner beauty from beneath guitar squalls and strung-out thinking, Think Tank rewards the dedicated listener.
The first seven tracks, including the current let's-be-happy single, "Out of Time", are quite astonishing in the way they creep up on you. Every one is a triumph, from the woozy symphony of "Ambulance" through the two-fingers-up pop of "Crazy Beat" to the dreamy, pretty folk of "Good Song". Oh, and there's far-out confessional in "On the Way to the Club", with its Beach Boy harmonies and trippy feel, not to mention the driving chant of "Brothers and Sisters", and the strange late-night wonder of "Caravan". It's only with the throwaway thrash of "We've Got a File On You" and the annoying, silly "Moroccan Peoples [sic] Revolutionary Bowls Club" that Think Tank breaks down - to resurrect itself immediately with the gorgeous "Sweet Song". "Jets", though, is awful. If we wanted experimental saxophone jazz breaks, we'd have grown a beard by now.
So then, ten great tracks, out of 13. Not a bad strike rate. And an intriguing live prospect. Blur have proved that, together or apart, solo or collaborating, they are never anything less than wonderful, challenging, vastly musical. Personally, I can't wait for the gigs.
Blur plays the London Astoria, WC2 (020 7344 0044) on 8, 9, 10 and 12 May (all dates sold out). Think Tank is out from Parlophone
Miranda Sawyer writes for the Observer