Blur: The Ballah of Darren (Parlophone) - review | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, February 24th, 2024  

Blur

The Ballad of Darren

Parlophone

Jul 20, 2023 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The cash-grab reunion of a beloved band is currently the rule rather than the exception. When earlier this year Britpop legends Blur announced a Wembley Stadium show in London it felt like a chance for fans to reminisce and congregate for a nostalgic night out. If we’re honest, that’s what “putting the band back together” is all about. It’s nothing new to see the bands of your youth reconvene in middle age or beyond, in fact it’s an almost obligatory rite of passage later in a musician’s career, often inspiring more a smiling shrug than a heartfelt fist-pump.

Blur, though, have always done things a little differently and the announcement of a brand new album was as unexpected as it was pleasing; there was a palpable sense of relief that the band weren’t going to merely trade on past glories but offer something fresh to their followers.

The Ballad of Darren is an exceptional album, though not at all what the Blur adherents of the ’90s might expect or even want. Across its 10 tracks it creates an atmosphere of melancholy and estrangement that’s more in line with Damon Albarn’s recent solo work than the last Blur record, 2015’s The Magic Whip, and a long thematic and musical mile away from their best-known ’90s hits.

Melodic and meditative where once the band may have been abrasive and anthemic, it’s a delicate, reflective album for the most part, with sparse drum machine beats providing a backdrop for Albarn’s softly whispered observations and gentle chorus croon, Graham Coxon’s guitar and backing vocals serving as both minimalist counterpoint and comforting support.

It has a brace of moving, perfectly crafted moments. Lead single “The Narcissist,” one of the finest songs of the band’s career, is sublime; genuinely beautiful, immaculately understated, and with a chorus that seeps into the skin, bringing a tear to the eye. Albarn’s heart-wrenching “If you see darkness, look away” is, like the song itself, simple, striking, and honey-dripping with meaning.

As lost and resigned as it is funny and wise, “Russian Strings” swells from low key balladry to full-blown torch song: “There’s nothing in the end, only dust / So turn the music up / I’m hitting the hard stuff.” Funereal, homesick, and woozy, “Far Away Island” asks “Are you dancing? / Are there new tunes to play? / As I sail further away from you,” while “Barbaric” boasts a self-conscious Smiths riff and slow build to a spine-tingling final chorus, Albarn mournfully confessing “I have lost the feeling that I thought I’d never lose” as the strings swell.

These are songs that deal with alienation, loss, and unwelcome change with stoicism and tenderness—though that’s not to say there isn’t occasional chaos to enjoy. “Goodbye Albert” gives Coxon’s favored overdriven guitar sound an outing, recent single “St Charles Square” is a raucous, comically paranoid bit of disposable dischord that sounds like a band truly having fun, and “Avalon” swipes at its soulful beginning with a clattering chorus but is a rare case here of an idea half-formed or at least half-delivered.

The Ballad of Darren is, simply put, a sad album. Not depressing, not lachrymose, and not defeatist, but a record that sees the band coming to terms with endings, with age, and with departures that are beginning to outnumber welcomes. “The Heights” attempts to describe “Something so momentary you can’t even feel it” in a redemptive closer that teeters towards former glories like “The Universal” but shows admirable restraint, resisting an overblown payoff, simply building and building until it washes out in squall of feedback.

With their scheduled live dates multiplying and two triumphant nights at Wembley Stadium now behind them, one wonders if The Ballad of Darren is a fresh start or a full stop. It’s more likely an ellipsis. Blur have proven the exception to the tired formula of the heritage rock revival by releasing a brilliant, brave, and perhaps most importantly, truly creative album just when it was least expected. (www.blur.co.uk)

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10



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