Blur The Ballad of Darren review

The Ballad of Darren review | A distillation of everything that works about Blur

Blur return, eight years since their previous release, with The Ballad of Darren. Whilst it can be all-too easy to wallow in a bit of sentimental nostalgia, if ever you were going to, this is the album to do it to.


Blur return, eight years since their previous release, with The Ballad of Darren. Whilst wallowing in nostalgia is an easy escape, if ever you were going to, this is the album for it.

At its most crude and oversimplified, there are two sides to Blur. There’s their boyish, shout-speak malarkey that’s seen them wax lyrical about everyday life, from the sarcastic observations of Englishness in ‘Parklife’ to their jesting taunts about the dull existence of a man who has it all in his ‘Country House’.

Granted, Damon Albarn and his Blur pals have never been as rough around the edges as their northern Britpop counterparts Oasis – again, in the most crude and oversimplified terms – but they’ve still possessed the energy of an outfit you feel’s ready for a bust-up in the right circumstances.

Then there’s the deeper, softer side to their output, with aptly-titled track ‘Tender’ – the love-soaked opening tune to 1999’s 13 LP – being one of the main proponents. It’s one of the many aspects that’s afforded the band such longevity; a well of soul and feeling that makes their early shouts of ‘Girls & Boys’ seem like a teenage fad. You might call it maturity.

The Ballad of Darren

These two aspects have coalesced and developed into something quite curious at present, with the bandmates now in their mid-fifties: blokes who feel; art school alumni who you’d gladly watch the football with over a pint. If they were once seen as ahead of their time, that time has now come and proven it was the case.

At their recent, long-awaited Wembley gig, they made full use of this spectrum, harking back to the lairy shout-a-longs of ‘Tracy Jacks’ and through their meditative reflections that had Albarn in tears at ‘Under the Westway’.

There’s a similar knowingness about the emotional panoply they’ve spun for themselves on their new record, The Ballad of Darren; a range they draw upon critically across the album’s ten tracks. This album isn’t so much a greatest hits collection as a distillation of everything that’s worked about them before.

Swaying opener ‘The Ballad’ sees Albarn looking back in wistful terms from the get-go: “I just looked into my life / And all I saw was that you’re not coming back.” In many ways it’s a clearcut reunion song. Graham Coxon’s hushed backing vocals, singing “I met you at an early show”, and “we travelled around the world together”, gives the impression of a band reminiscing in unison – a fact made all the more nostalgic given the turbulent periods Coxon in particular has experienced, essentially once removed from the band midway through recording Think Tank. (He would of course reunite in 2009; Wembley, nor their latest album, being the only reunion in Blur’s history, hence their skill in conducting them).


Photo: Kevin Westenberg

Then comes the gleeful throwback of subsequent tune ‘St. Charles Square’, which rattles into life after a sauntering guitar slide, a track you feel wouldn’t be out of place on Blur’s 1991 debut Leisure, with Albarn’s laddish paranoia as “The room is shrinking fast around me / It’s grabbed me by the ankle / And pulled me under.”

‘Barbaric’ sounds almost purposefully upbeat – a plodding sense of buoyancy found on some of Albarn’s The Good, the Bad & the Queen work – even if this is at odds with its pining chorus of “You have lost / The feeling that you thought you’d never lose.”

Almost every Blur album has a gem of a track so dreamy it takes you momentarily elsewhere. Modern Life Is Rubbish has the spindly, underrated ‘Miss America’; Think Tank’s has its lead single and existentialist anthem ‘Out Of Time’; and ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ from The Magic Whip has an otherworldly echo.

The Ballad of Darren’s moment of pure bliss is ‘Russian Strings’, a track that almost sings to the heavens, Albarn crying out into the ether, “There are strings attached to all of us / There is nothing in the end only dust.” It’s mildly more excessive than the tracks aforementioned but is ultimately also one of those tunes you’d choose to die to, when the time comes, packing-in a simultaneous lust for life and sadness for it all.

Blur Wembley

Damon Albarn at Blur’s recent Wembley show.

Not everything works on Blur’s latest project, or at least isn’t worthy of being filed among their timeless tunes. ‘Goodbye Albert’ is a fuzzy yet fairly forgettable number; ‘Far Away Island’ is serene, yes, but lacks a melodious core as to be almost sedative. What these do, however, is accentuate just how good the album’s lead single ‘The Narcissist’ is. It’s rousing in a way that isn’t forced, reflecting the same familiar yet heartfelt substance of its choral refrain “I’m going to shine a light in your eyes.

Much of this authenticity stems from the obvious fact that Blur are now older, with both nothing to prove and more life experiences to delve into – not least the loss of former tour manager Craig Duffy and, for Albarn especially, former Gorillaz and the Good, the Bad & the Queen collaborator, the drummer and Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen.

This is what affords the reflections upon the life not lived on ‘The Everglades’ such pathos; the “Many ghosts alive in my mind / Many paths I wish I’d taken / Many times I thought I’d break.” Final track ‘The Heights’, meanwhile, is a rather shrewd bookend for ‘The Ballad’. Where the opening track looked backwards at Albarn, Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree’s unmatched journey as friends and bandmates, this final tune looks so far into the future as into another lifetime. A circle of life, if you will.

“Are we running out of time,” Albarn questions beneath the intermittent shattering of violins and a groundswell of each of the band’s best features: Coxon scurrying across the top, James burrowing away beneath and Rowntree keeping things in-check. In answer to Albarn’s question: yes, they are, such is life. But they’re making a sure go of it while they’re all still together.


Photo: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis II

As the track boils away in a distortion of white noise, you realise The Ballad of Darren is as much a celebration of Blur persevering through it all.

Only this time, you hope they don’t leave it another eight years to reunite in the studio once more.

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