As an international post-indie rock star, Damon Albarn's waded through it all with a grin. Along with archrival Oasis, vocalist Albarn and his band Blur ushered in the early-'90s Britpop era that saved smart guitar rock in the U.K., before the Gallaghers knocked them out of arena contention. They've taken years out of the spotlight, had personal and professional relationships molded into tabloid sagas, and somehow still managed to release albums to a sizable and devoted global following. And they've mutated their musical direction enough times to recently force out guitarist and pivotal founding member Graham Coxon. So should we be surprised when Albarn opens "Ambulance," the narcotically soulful first track of their ninth album, Think Tank, by calmly intoning, "I ain't got nothing to be scared of"?
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Albarn's defiance may speak to an honest apathy about whether folks will like Think Tank, an album that obviously reflects his art-pop vision as informed by his participation in electronica projects like Gorillaz and his Afro-pop solo travelogue Mali Music. The perceived attitude isn't all good, of course: Almost a third of Think Tank is stocked with throwaway tunes and half-baked ideas. But the rest is topnotch, forward-thinking Blur, from the sweetly melodic noise of "Out of Time" to the flitting psychedelic dance of "On the Way to the Club" and the fuzzy, lo-fi production of "Caravan." By the time Albarn and Co. close up shop with the hard, wryly yearning love song "Battery in Your Leg" -- Coxon's final contribution before he split -- it's clear that Blur's taken another compelling step on its rich, impudent path.