Parklife not required: Blur played The Ballad of Darren in full, plus some ridiculously rare songs.
The cheese paunches are wobbling and the jowls are almost down to the knees, but somehow, 30 years after it defined British cultural cool, the UK is in the midst of a new summer of Britpop.
It’s probably due to coincidence rather than a processed beats backlash, but Pulp are among the most feted British live acts of 2023, Noel Gallagher is gigging again, and Suede are on their latest comeback. A few weeks before this show at London’s 3,500-capacity Eventim Apollo (also streamed globally online) Blur played two nights at Wembley Stadium: their biggest headline shows ever. Another The Big Breakfast reboot can’t be far off.
This is, of course, a crass association. Blur were at the sharpest, most intelligent end of Britpop, Damon Albarn simultaneously defining and baiting the culture by producing deft masterpieces such as ‘The Universal’ alongside the wink-nod boob model ‘Country House’ video. While Blur’s hit-heavy stadium setlist celebrated the legacy of the arty band that somehow became massive, this gig pulled our snouts from the nostalgia trough in more intimate surroundings, as they played new album The Ballad of Darren in full.
Well, it was a partial snout-pulling. Blur’s new album, their first since 2015’s The Magic Whip, is inwards-looking and steeped in nostalgia – although this is due to Albarn lyrically wallowing in middle-aged reflection, not past music glories.
Showing this from the off was ‘The Ballad’ – a string-led slowie that had the frontman seemingly pining over lost friends while guitarist Graham Coxon’s soft vocal line, “We travelled around the world together”, conjured more sepia photos dropping onto the pile.
It was a lovely start, with bassist Alex James ensuring the atmosphere wasn’t morose by cheekily lying stage-right on a leather sofa as he played. Exposing his bandy legs with tight black shorts, the louche musician looked like the missing link between Britpop and AC/DC.
‘St Charles Square’s’ ‘Song 2 with tranquilizer’ snarl was the band doing effortlessly dirty. But the calmer likes of ‘Russian Strings’, ‘Goodbye Albert’ and ‘Avalon’ – bolstered with a four-piece string section – felt more indicative of the introspective mindset of 2023 Blur.
For ‘Russian Strings’, Albarn was bathed in red light as he belted out baritone over luscious orchestration. It was the kind of sound Alex Turner has been striving for with Arctic Monkeys recently – a comparison Albarn has made – but soaked in breezy gravitas.
Fluffing his vocals for pastorally British ‘The Everglades (For Leonard)’, Albarn laughed and explained: “That’s what happens when you have a song on a record that doesn’t have any intro and you think you can hit the right note.” Such ice-breaking moments of imperfection from Britain’s most prolific musical perfectionist added to the gig’s uniqueness. Even hearing less impressive new songs, such as the mediocre ‘Far Away Island’, felt like little fragments of Blur history being made (albeit largely because ‘Far Away Island’ will probably never be played live again).
After Coxon’s guitar squall ended a stirring ‘The Heights’, with the crowd anticipating a ‘Parklife’ or ‘Girls & Boys’ pogo, Blur began their encore with ‘Pyongyang’: a moody, murky song from The Magic Whip. With drummer Dave Rowntree adding new, chest-thumping snare drum gunshots to the swooping chorus, Albarn’s yarn of amplified trees and dictatorial dynasty was an unexpected highlight. Few bands could begin a sold-out show encore with a slow song about the capital city of North Korea, but it fitted the tone of relaxed melancholy perfectly.
After ‘Clover Over Dover’ (a song from 1994’s Parklife album rarely played live), three old b-sides followed: ‘Mr Briggs’, ‘All Your Life’ and ‘Theme From An Imaginary Film’. The latter was played live for the first time, Albarn admitted he’d forgotten it existed, despite it having the kind of jaunty chorus that would make it a highlight in many bands’ repertoires.
For 1991’s ‘Mr Briggs’, Albarn dipped into a different tone of nostalgic reflection, recalling writing it about a gross boarding house he shared with pungent old men. “It was character-building,” he said.
Blur did administer a final hit of familiarity, ending with usual set-closer ‘The Universal’: one of the songs that ensured the band members would never live in such squalid quarters again. It was a reminder that from straddling stadiums nearly 35 years after their formation, to launching a great, age-appropriate new album, Blur have hit all the right notes this year.