Blur’s Think Tank: “You’re my jelly bean.”

March 10th, 2011 by | Tags: , , ,

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the fourth, where Graeme McMillan (Techland, Spinoff Online) joins me to talk about Blur’s Think Tank. We broke it down track by track for you, so follow along on your mp3 player or listen to the embedded music videos.

Minutes from previous meetings of the Society: The Beatles – “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan)

Blur – Think Tank

1. Ambulance

Graeme: There’s something about this song that really makes me feel like it’s 13 done right – It’s got the same droning, mumbling, incantation thing going on, but there’s a sharpness and clarity to the noise, at the same time, if that makes sense? Also, it’s only 5 minutes, and really doesn’t outstay its welcome (It also changes things up enough so that it almost feels like a couple of songs in one – I really love the bassline that comes in around 3:30). Lyrically, there’s something to be said about the first line of an album being “No, I ain’t got nothing to be scared of, no,” after the break-up depression and drama of 13. It’s the sound of someone who’s found a new confidence in himself, and wants you to know.

David: I bought Think Tank off Amazon, and it comes with a hidden track first, which is actually just the first 6:45 of the twelve-minute first track. It’s the talking guy from “Parklife” yapping about something over droning and pulsing kind of backing music. The music part is okay, but it’s called “Me, White Noise” and it’s easy to see why. There are some good bits in it (especially around 2:18 or so when it goes really dancey), but it pretty much instantly overstays its welcome, and then goes on for a full six minutes.

Graeme: God, I’d entirely forgotten about “Me, White Noise.” It’s like the uglier brother of “Parklife,” with the jangly guitars grown into squelchy noises and everything sounding like a hangover. It really reminds me of “Essex Dogs” from Blur, but a very bad take on the same idea – It’s different, yes, but so different that I didn’t really have any desire to listen to it again after the second listen or so.

David: Other than that though, “Ambulance”? I like how it sets the stage for the rest of the album. It’s typically Blur subject matter, a kinda melancholy love song thing about your own personal shortcomings, but the music feels newer. It doesn’t sound like “Tender” or “Boys & Girls” or “For Tomorrow.” The rising action that kicks a little before the end is great, too, and it sounds like an orchestra rising up behind the singer looks.

You’re right on the significance of the first line, too. I thought this record was much, much less mopey (as much as I like moping) than 13. Albarn’s singing on “Ambulance” reminds me of “Beetlebum.” You’ve seen the video, right? Where he’s essentially fellating a microphone? The delivery there reminds me of the delivery here.

Graeme: I can see that, but the video it reminds me of is “No Distance Left To Run.” This is Damon still a little sleepy, waking up and everything better after a good night’s sleep.

2. Out Of Time

Graeme: Another beautifully sad song, and again, there’s a clarity to the noise that makes everything feel new after 13. But there’s also the… counter-programming, perhaps, of the Moroccan instrumentation that really adds something to the way it all sounds, and makes it feel as large as the lyrics demand. “And you’ve been so busy lately/That you haven’t found the time/To open up your mind/And watch the world spinning/Gently out of time,” sings Damon, and it’s like he’s gone from snarky observer (Modern Life Is Rubbish/Parklife/The Great Escape) to introvert (Blur/13) to… what, enlightened observer? But there’s such melancholy in the way that he sings it that it doesn’t come across as impartial. Am I making sense?

David: “And you’ve been so busy lately/ That you haven’t found the time/ To open up your mind/ And watch the world spinning/ Gently out of time” is exactly what drew me to this song, actually. It paints a fantastically detailed picture of a world where all is lost, but not really, because there is still something pretty. We just have to slow down to see the beauty and finally notice the decay.

This is an easy one to relate to. It reminds me of Atmosphere’s “Modern Man’s Hustle,” from God Loves Ugly. The chorus (which is infinitely catchy) is “I will show you all you need to know/ You must hold on to anyone that wants you/ And I will love you through simple and the struggle/ But girl, you got to understand the modern man must hustle.” Like, yeah, I love you, BUUUUUUUT surviving has to come first. Priorities. (and if you want to talk about albums that are autobiographical for the listener, I couldn’t listen to God Loves Ugly for like three years.)

Being too busy to take the time to do nice things is pretty much the dictionary definition of modern life, innit? Turns out modern life is rubbish (sorry).

Graeme: Interesting… I’d always taken it as Damon being someone who’s almost reprimanding – albeit very, very gently – the listener/whoever he’s singing to for being too busy. As in “This is who you’ve been, but you have to change, or you’ll never get better.” Are you saying that you hear it as Damon just being sad that that’s the way life is now?

David: I’ve been listening and re-listening to it while replying to you, and the song definitely isn’t partial. He’s singing about the way things are, but pushing for the way things should be. I think you’re right about Albarn admonishing the listener, but it’s also told from the first person plural at certain points, which says to me that he shares some of the blame. “Where’s the love song to set us free?”, right? It feels sort of like resignation, whether from him (“I can’t quite make the leap to this kind of love”) or about her (“You need to slow down, life could be really nice for us.”). The Atmosphere reference isn’t quite as close as I’d thought, on further reflection.

But basically, this one is saying to me, “We/you/I ain’t perfect, and we make do, but it’d be nice if we could do better.”

3. Crazy Beat

Graeme: Maybe it’s just me, but this sounds like posturing, like they’re trying to do something like “BLUREMI” or earlier, punkier music, and it just doesn’t convince – Again, there’s something about the production that doesn’t work for me, it’s muddy and feels small in the same way that a lot of 13 did. It feels out of place in the album, as if they were told by the record company to come up with an upbeat single and half-assed this.

David: I like this one more than you do for sure, in part because it’s basically in the vein of “I Love Rock & Roll” (in subject matter, at least, and in execution with the “I love that crazy beat” part) set over something I’d want to dance to. It’s light, though, and I don’t even think it’s single worthy. Like, maybe in the ’90s, but this feels like a throwback, save for the talkbox. This is just okay.

Of course, after I say “this doesn’t feel like it’s single worthy,” I google and find that it was a single. Well.

4. Good Song

Graeme: The first of many songs on this album that feel as if they could’ve come from a Gorillaz project. I’m not sure what the differentiator is for me, but maybe it’s the drums and the finger-picked acoustic guitar sounding like a loop? It’s a very slight song, but nice enough. Maybe it needed a guest-star, a la Gorillaz.

David: Hands down best part of the song is “And you seem very beautiful to me” and that lead-in to the instrumental break. The last verse is no good, though. The falsetto doesn’t work, the trailing off… it feels like he’s trying too hard. You’re right that it’s slight, and I think what it needed was a female vocalist, someone to go back and forth with Albarn.

Graeme: Yes! Bring in Little Dragon. I still think “To Binge” from Plastic Beach is the best Albarn song in years. Or maybe just the most complete.

David: “To Binge” is great, but c’mon… it’s gotta be “Broken”.

“You seem very beautiful to me” is great, though. Seem is one of those words that I think is a little wishy-washy, like you use it when you don’t want to make a firm statement. That, then, raises the question of just how sincere this song is supposed to be. Is it just an attempt at an escape? I dunno, but this track needed more to make me dig it.

5. On The Way To The Club

Graeme: This one just kind of leaves me flat. I don’t DISLIKE it, I just don’t particularly like it, either. It’s just there, and not very interesting to me. Again, parts of it – everything post 2:05, in particular – really sound like an unfinished Gorillaz song to me.

David: Man, yeah, I have hardly any opinion on this song at all. I get it, it’s about longing and not really being able to do much about it, but it feels like half a song. I don’t buy it. I keep forgetting its on this album, too. It just comes and goes. Post-2:05 sounds a little Demon Days-y, but only in sound, not in focus. The wailing and noises there felt like they had a point, while here… it just feels like dead air.

6. Brothers and Sisters

Graeme: I love this song; I love the guitar, and the way it sounds like it’s going to be a totally different song until the bass comes in. I love Damon’s attempts at rapping, I love the moaning background vocals, and the way the song twists and turns into something completely different by the time it finishes, especially the really dated-sounding keyboards. One of my favorite songs on the album.

David: Setting aside my obvious attraction to anything named “brothers,” you’re right here. The slant rhymes, the chorus, all of it is great. Do you hear him slurring his vocals on the chorus? “Gi’ us somethin’ toniiiight…” I love drug songs, and while this isn’t as teeter-totteringly clever as, say, Aesop Rock’s “Greatest Pac-Man Victory In History”, it’s still great just for its sheer straightforwardness.

I love how he flirts with the word “sobriety” at the end, too. Albarn goes “Librium for anxiety/ Drinking is our society/ Guessing out of tirety” and that’s great, because you KNOW the next rhyme HAS to be sobriety, but, no the song’s over. No sobriety for you.

7. Caravan

Graeme: This sounds like a cousin to “Battle” on 13 somehow, but again, much cleaner and… more melodic, perhaps? Again, I love this song, especially the arrangement (The guitar? keyboard? that comes in behind the singing at 1:15 really makes the song for me) and the distortion on Damon’s voice. The laziness to the “la lala la la la la”s as well, it feels effortless, intimate. There’s something very… disconnected, in a good way, about a lot of the sounds on this album, very spacey but in a different way to 13 – I really like it.

David: The distortion is what makes this one. It’s like Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak, where a robot voice is playing this very melancholy role and hitting melancholy notes. This is another one of those rainy day songs, where really all the video has to be is a camera looking in a window from the rain while the band plays. That’s the exact picture this paints in my head. Intimate is a good word, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. There’s definitely something at least slightly masking his emotions–in this case the distortion.

I do like how the song reverses course in the second verse, though. First verse: “I’m a screw-up.” Second verse: “No, wait, I have family.” And “Sometimes everything is easy” feels like it has an unspoken “but not this time” sitting there in the shadows.

8. We’ve Got A File On You

Graeme: See, THIS is what I wanted “Crazy Beat” to sound like. This feels like an upbeat, shouty song that actually BELONGS on the album, and done in just over a minute! This is the kind of punk I want.

David: The first what, twenty seconds of this song? Flawless. It’s something that should be in one of Tarantino’s soundtracks. The rest of the song is great, sure, but that wind-up before the pitch is great. I think “Crazy Beat” is too different in tone for it to work as being a really shouty piece, though.

Graeme: I first heard this song when the album leaked online, and it was missing the last “ON YOU!” Weirdly enough, I think it was better that way. It just… stopped. Seriously, play it back and stop it right there. You’ll hear what I mean.

9. Moroccan People’s Revolutionary Bowls Club

Graeme: This is really a bass-heavy album, compared with all the other Blur albums, isn’t it? Alex really takes a massive role on this one, and really grounds the songs in a way that he’s never really had to before. Case in point: For everything that’s going on in this song, it’s all about that bass line, and it’s the bass line – and probably Dave’s drums – that make it feel so loose and light. This is another one that feels like, with different vocals, it could be a Gorillaz song.

David: You know, I couldn’t tell you what a bass guitar sounds like if I tried. If someone pointed out the differences, sure, I probably could, but right now? No idea. You’re absolutely right in that the music carries this one, but I really dig the way that the vocals come in as a track of their own two minutes in, with the ’80s (or at least what I associate the ’80s as being like) vocal distortion feeling more like music than actual vocals. I really like the drums here, too, but can’t quite articulate why. They sound sort of like the boom-bap from some of the indie hip-hop I was into in high school.

10. Sweet Song

Graeme: Definitely my favorite song on the album, it’s another Albarn song that just feels honest and open and effortless, and again, he’s being melancholy. It’s something that he does really well: Not SAD songs, necessarily, but melancholy ones, ones completely infused with sadness, but also some kind of optimism that keeps it from being a complete downer (“But I hope I see the good in you come back again/I just believed in you” is the kind of beautifully heartbreaking line, all filled with regret and hope that I love Elliott Smith for, even though everyone else in the known world seems to think he’s only about the depression). I like that the song ends, but the track continues with that long fade that sounds like something moving further away, for another few seconds, too.

David: This sounds like it could have easily been on 13, or even Plastic Beach, when I think about it. This feels like “On Melancholy Hill”‘s lyrics mixed with the music from “Broken.” “I deceive I deceive I deceive I deceive ’cause I’m not that strong/ hope you feel the same” is a little bit brilliant, too, the kind of line you want to chew over for a while.

I can’t quite decide what the song’s actually about, though, in part because of that line. Did he hurt his girl, was she not open to him trying to do good, what what what? “I hope I see the good in you come back again” sounds like she went sour, not him. It’s just a little ambiguous, isn’t it?

Graeme: All the best melancholy songs are ambiguous, I think; all the better for you to think “He/She’s singing ABOUT MY LIFE.” I know there are multiple Albarn sad songs that I feel completely possessive about, and it’s all because of the very specific readings I give them.

11. Jets

Graeme: Another could-be-a-Gorillaz-song-in-an-alternate-universe track, but it feels unfinished and a bit throwaway in a way that earlier instrumentals hadn’t. Also, by the time the saxophone comes in, just being a bit jazz-wanky, I’ve pretty much lost interest.

David: I actually really, really dig this one. It sounds like a Saul Williams song, from Albarn’s voice down to the heavy, messy drums. I like how it has a few specific modes, too: the part where Albarn’s lyrics fade in and then fade out (which is the heavy part), the plinky-plink part before and after that, and then the oppressive bit after that, before flipping back to plinks. This is good writing music and a real head-nodder. The sax was a bit much, though, especially around 6:05.

12. Gene By Gene

Graeme: This always makes me think it’s a really simple love song (“You’re my jelly bean” strikes me as such a lovelily goofy expression, and completely unexpected by this point in the album) done very elaborately, based around what sounds like samples of random noise? But I love it, completely, it’s just… happy, or at least it sounds happy enough that I find myself ignoring the lyrics and just listening to the noises, something I do to a lot of songs that just make me smile. For all I know, this is a really depressing song if you listen to the lyrics, but I don’t care. Someone (his daughter?) is Damon’s jelly bean, and that’s all I need to know.

David: Is this song depressing? Even looking at the lyrics I can’t quite tell, and the song being so incredibly upbeat muddies the waters even more. “Gotta get to know you, gene by gene” is good stuff. It feels like a song that’s straight up autobiographical, too. “Got a radio hit in mind…” This is another song that demands you nod your head along with the music, especially with around a minute to go and the vocals begin wrapping in on each other. The outro is weird, though, more horror movie than pop song.

“Get out the shower and I’m four fifty?” Google says “Force 15” but that makes even less sense.

Graeme: No, wait, that makes sense: Force 15, like a hurricane. Is that a British thing?

David: Ah, no, that makes sense. Wikipedia says that it only goes up to Force 12, but that still makes much more sense.

And on the point of it maybe being about his daughter–“jellybean” is such a daughter-y nickname.

13. Battery In My Leg

Graeme: It’s Blur-fan-heresy, I know, but this song – the only one on the album to feature Graham Coxon, who fell out with the rest of the band and left during recording – is just… I don’t know, overblown and bland in a way that the rest of the album isn’t, and I’m very glad that the rest of the album isn’t anything like it. Everything else feels more alive, whereas this feels uncertain and uncomfortable. You can hear the tension inside it, and it’s a relief when it’s done.

David: This song’s a drag, through and through. Even the piano keys taking the song out bore me to tears. The lyrics are okay, I guess, but it feels like a Blur song that’s intentionally Blur-y–“Here is what we do, so let’s go ahead and get it over with.” It’s like 2/3 of the songs on Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3 in that way. “This is what people expect.” Bleah. Pass.

Similar Posts:

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon

3 comments to “Blur’s Think Tank: “You’re my jelly bean.””

  1. I came at Blur backwards, so this is kinda my favorite of their albums. Maybe it’s because I was deeper into Gorillaz before Blur as well, but this album feels like a natural extension of Gorillaz or the other way round I guess.

    Sweet Song tops the track-list for me.

  2. […] “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme […]

  3. […] “Eleanor Rigby”, Tupac – Makaveli, Blur – 13 (with Graeme McMillan), Blur – Think Tank (with Graeme McMillan), Black Thought x Rakim: “Hip-Hop, you the love of my life” So when the […]