Pros at pillaging musical styles from those more skilled than them, each of Blur’s albums finds them changing their sound to match their ever-changing influences. Their self-titled album – which produced the band’s first American hit, “Song 2,” (the “Woo Hoo” song) – borrowed heavily from Pavement and other American indie rock groups, and the follow-up 13 brought to mind mid-80s Bowie and Brian Eno. This time around, the collage of influences seems even more schizophrenic, ranging from Odelay-era Beck to 80s club anthems and Massive Attack.

After the success of the Gorillaz album, on which Blur singer Damon Albarn shouldered vocal and songwriting duties, the band’s direction was in question. Would it go further in the direction of dance music or return to its British rock/pop roots? This question was answered when guitarist Graham Coxon quit the band last year, presumably over disputes with Albarn’s new assertive leadership and the inclusion of Fatboy Slim in a few of their recording sessions. Albarn is left the unquestioned dictator of the group, for better or for worse.

The absence of Coxon on guitar is the most striking difference between this and Blur’s prior albums. In his place is an emphasis on programming – constructing melodies by arranging loops piece by piece into songs. This is most apparent when the group attempts to “rock,” as in the Fatboy Slim-produced “Crazy Beat.” The song’s musical content amounts to nothing but a semi-energetic guitar riff looped over and over, with different effects applied to it every few measures. Like a group without a drummer, Blur can no longer jam the way a traditional rock band could. Albarn subs on guitar for a few tracks, but his playing sounds synthetic and calculated, as if put together on a computer.

This is not to say that the music on Think Tank is bland; far from it. The variety of instruments and styles presented throughout is impressive, more often giving the album a feeling of progress rather than regression. The album opens to the brooding funk of “Ambulance,” which side-steps the guitar in favor of horns and eclectic percussion, and continues on to the bluesy “Out Of Time,” chock-full of sitars and subdued vocals. Oddly enough, the filler in this album is not randomly arranged throughout, but rather sandwiched between the solid beginning and end.

There are two ways of looking at this LP. On one hand, it signals a new direction for Blur that shows great promise if smoothed out. On the other, the promise that it shows, though impressive, is sporadic, with filler dominating the track lineup. Blur albums are never consistent pieces of work, but this one is more directionless than any before it. For listeners with open minds and short attention spans, it’s worth checking out.

[Drew Atkins is prone to moments of levity, followed by eternities of cynicism.]