Print & Features Editor Jess Parker reviews Blur’s latest album, praising the band’s growth and explaining why it is an instant classic
English rock band Blur’s ninth studio album, The Ballad of Darren, was released to UK listeners on 21 July 2023, marking their second album in twenty years (coming after 2015’s The Magic Whip). Although Blur were not on any kind of formal leave, the sparsity of their studio releases brings a sense of occasion surrounding any new music from the group, consisting of vocalist and keyboardist Damon Albarn, guitarist and vocalist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree.
Further to Blur’s trend of consistently topping the British charts after the release of 1994’s four-time UK platinum-certified Parklife, Blur has seen a popularity surge across fans on social media video sharing platform TikTok, seeing their songs used in fan-made sounds that have tens of thousands of posts under them. Coming off the back of Albarn’s virtual-avatar-based band Gorillaz’s recent release Cracker Island, The Ballad of Darren has been a near-perfectly timed resurgence for the indie cult favourite.
On 18 May 2023, Blur released ‘The Narcissist’, the lead single for The Ballad of Darren and their first piece of new music in eight years. The Ballad of Darren is an evolution for Blur, building from their Madchester and Britpop roots into a more melancholic sound that suits not only their musical growth but their personal too. Although the single is far from the album’s most melancholic, it features themes of reflection and change that harken back to their past successes and time in the spotlight. The single was widely well received, with Consequence describing the track as ‘self-assured [and] meditative’.
The album tells of a range of journeys through Blur’s career. ‘The Ballad’ acts as a reflective discussion between Albarn and Coxon, implementing an antiphonal back and forth between the two vocalists as they consider their days together as young men. The song is exposing and honest as the two consider the moments that they have shared through their musical and personal exploits. Albarn and Coxon know that they no longer exist in their heyday and choose to write from a grounded perspective.
The Ballad of Darren’s second single, ‘St Charles Square’, shocks listeners back to the 1990s with a ‘Beetlebum’-esque blast of jagged power chords. The song is a crowd-pleaser, briefly and suddenly transporting audiences away from The Ballad of Darren’s integral gloom to the height of quintessential Blur. The track is one of The Ballad of Darren’s boldest, harking back to their defining years, the influence of David Bowie, and a sense of the teen-angst that the band used to be synonymous with.
The Ballad of Darren’s ninth track, ‘Avalon’, contrasts what NME described as ‘pomp’ comparable to ‘This Is A Low’ and ‘The Universal’ with juxtaposing lyrics of regret and remorse. The track is disillusionment-incarnate. As Albarn croons, “I’m dialling in, I’m dialling out”, attempting to connect himself with the world, yet ultimately finding detachment in his efforts. The repeated lyrics are as drudging as the song’s disenchanted perspective, furthering the menial nature of ‘Avalon’s initial utopic stance.
Much like the vast majority of Blur’s discography, The Ballad of Darren is an instant classic for the long-running group. Blur never lands on the same note twice, willing listeners to appreciate their growth as they go through the motions of change alongside Albarn-and-co. The album is varied, stemming from their gritty youth to their more mature and often pensive outlook on what they have built over the past three decades. A worthy experience from start to finish, The Ballad of Darren is an essential listen for even the most casual Blur listener.
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