Album Reviews

Blur – The Ballad Of Darren

(Parlophone) UK release date: 21 July 2023

The returning four-piece’s ninth album is a captivating sonic journey that offers proof of their ability to blend genres, experiment with sound and deliver thought-provoking moments

Blur - The Ballad Of Darren As Blur release their highly anticipated, second post-reformation album, The Ballad Of Darren, it is impossible to separate the context of this new offering from their illustrious history as a band and their individual endeavours as solo artists – especially when 2023 has seen three separate releases by Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon and Dave Rowntree (Alex James still has time).

Earlier this year, we saw the debut solo album by Rowntree – a rather surprising run through the gamut of quintessentially English pop music, from Brian Eno to Robert Wyatt, Depeche Mode to Blur themselves. Then Coxon released the debut album of his new group, The Waeve, which boiled down his most peculiar tendencies into a kind of strange, unsettling freak-folk sound. Damon – the most prolific member of the group – released the eighth Gorillaz album Cracker Island, which was lovely and solid and decent and amiable, but perhaps nothing special. 

So you’d expect that The Ballad of Darren would fall somewhere in the middle of that triangle, but you couldn’t be further from the reality of it: for the most part, it sounds like a continuation of the sound Albarn established on his last solo album, The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, only with moments of sinewy post-punk sprinkled throughout. 

The opener – The Ballad – is stately and widescreen and epic, a world apart from the sound of 2015’s The Magic Whip. If it were to be sonically reminiscent of anything from recent memory, it’d be whatever you call the modern Arctic Monkeys sound. Post-Piccioni? Soundtrack-pop? 

St. Charles Square is the opposite – gnarled and gritty and rusted-over. It’s a highlight, purely for the fact that’s it’s the only time Blur remember that they really can be a world class Rock Band. Barbaric is light-touch, springy yet melancholic in Albarn’s signature fashion, and another one of the standout moments on the record. Russian Strings meanwhile reprises the sound of the first song, with a lush and vivid sonic landscape, full of chiming guitars and forlorn lyrics about “hitting the hard stuff”.

The Everglades is another weeper that moves at a glacial pace, but just fast enough to nurture a delicate beating heart. The Narcissist – one of the few tracks sure to be the song that survives this album’s touring cycle and makes it onto far-flung setlist – is another highlight. 

Goodbye Albert pays homage to early (pre-Berlin) David Bowie, while Far Away Island sounds for all intents and purposes like a Gorillaz offcut. It’s probably the only track that you might consider skipping on repeated listens – which almost guarantees that it will be some fans’ favourite Blur song. The closing pair – Avalon and The Heights – are both superb. They don’t sound anything like Blur, but that’s the pervading theme of the record. Just good tunes, unbeholden to the weight of the past. 

Overall, The Ballad of Darren is a captivating sonic journey that goes to great lengths to ignore much of Blur’s rich legacy, but it shows that bands – even those long in the tooth – can still continue their musical growth without sacrificing quality. It’s proof and testament to their ability to blend genres, experiment with sound, and deliver thought-provoking moments. 

As Blur continue to surprise, and beguile, and shape their path in the ever-evolving music landscape, this album serves as a reminder of their enduring influence and their unwavering commitment to pushing boundaries. It’s a Blur album – what else would you expect? 

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