blur - 'The Ballad Of Darren'
A love letter of sorts
On March 25th 2015, blur shared a performance of ‘The Magic Whip’, their first album with Graham Coxon for sixteen years, via the Beats YouTube channel. It had been recorded nearly a week earlier at London club Mode where an audience of only a few hundred had witnessed the debut of a release whose existence had only been announced a month previous. As I peered at the screen, barely able to balance the tricky collision of willing something to be great and discovering it actually is, there came the moment in ‘Thought I Was A Spaceman’ where Graham adds “You again” to the end of Damon Albarn singing “Put the ghost in writing and let it be”. And I burst into tears. Full, uncontrollable, breath-disrupting, snot-provoking sobs. When my respiratory system allowed, I let out several, wobbly gulps of “Oh, Graham.”
I had seen Coxon onstage with blur in both 2009 and 2012 at Wolverhampton Civic Hall and it was hardly a shock that he was singing on the new songs, especially given the narrative around the album’s construction, but there was something absolutely devastating about that symbiotic intertwining being delivered afresh in new music. It’s a very good record, whose unconventional genesis meant that the alchemical interactions weren’t quite as consistent as they have been at many other points in the band’s career. But that moment was one of them and 2023’s expectation levels accelerated upwards upon discovering that the same combination was all over recent comeback single ‘The Narcissist’. The wordplay, humour and sheer beauty of the Damon/Graham axis in that track is deeply moving. It was no surprise to see it greeted like a classic within days, during the early warm up shows for the Wembley weekend and beyond. It has lost none of its charm in the weeks that have followed and it has connected far beyond the faithful that lapped up the 2015 endeavour.
It turned out to be exquisite notice that the intangible magic which occurs when the four members of Blur assemble had been fully embraced, channelled and harnessed for improbably titled ninth record ‘The Ballad Of Darren’. Alex James has been quite clear in recent interviews that they convene at Albarn’s convenience, but it feels rather different this time. The gigs were booked in the latter half of 2022, but most of the songs worked on were written during Gorillaz’s autumn tour. Damon has spoken previously about not really writing for a certain project, producing songs regularly and fitting them to the circumstances in which he finds himself. But it’s hard to listen to much of this new album without the lyrics feeling like they simply belong with the James/Rowntree rhythm section and Coxon’s inimitable guitar work.
It has been implied previously that some of blur’s reunion gigs have been financially convenient for several individuals, but I can’t shake the feeling that this time it’s Albarn who really needs his old mates back. It’s a sense that only intensified when I watched him in action onstage in Wolves at the end of May.
‘13’ is easily summarised as a break-up record, ‘No Distance Left To Run’ especially bare in its consideration of a relationship at an end. There is a primal edge to aspects of the album that serves as a visceral howl into the void, marking the end of youthful invincibility. ‘The Ballad Of Darren’ seems like the more moderate, middle-aged ache prompted by the gap between idealism and reality, evoking bewilderment, resignation and tired acceptance. Albarn’s lyrics famously take some unravelling, so it’s hard to know whether songs that appear to be about the end of a relationship are set in the here and now or reflecting on the past, and even if they are about married life or valued friendships. As ever, the listener will bring their own set of circumstances to scaffold individual interpretations, but the sense of endings is inescapable.
Opener ‘The Ballad’ evolved out of a track from 2003’s ‘Democrazy’, ‘Half A Song’, which the titular Darren (‘Smoggy’ Evans - former band bodyguard and current Albarn associate) had been begging Damon to finish for two decades. It was a wise act of persistence, as a magical piece of music lurked within. Graham’s swooning backing vocals are as affecting as the neatly less-is-more strings, not least during their ascending layers towards the song’s close. Albarn sings, “I know I can’t change the times. I know I’m breaking when I look into your eyes,” with a fragility that is grudgingly at peace with the situation. It appears to signal that 2023 Blur are a rather serious affair, neatly establishing the groundwork for the sumptuous double-bluff that is following via ‘St. Charles Square’, a delicious angular strut with only marginally less Bowie DNA than ‘M.O.R.’ The guitars, the screamy chorus and the glam piano certainly seem to reinforce the sense of ‘Scary Monsters’ lurking below. A perfect choice to open their shows, it’s a clattering burst of deceptively meticulous composition that harks back to their self-titled highpoint without feeling even faintly retrograde.
During an occasionally insightful 2014 interview with La Musicale, Damon talked about how his voice has a habit of sounding sad whenever he sings. Certainly, that rich melancholia is one of the key aspects of my undiluted adoration of his work, but there are many shades of Albarn on show here. It will be tempting for the hasty listeners to bound through the tracks, seeking to categorise them as seeming like one or the other of his extra-curricular projects but it’s a waste of time. The thought crossed my mind after the initial couple of plays, but it quickly faded and having now listened at least once – and often multiple times – daily for the past seven weeks to the whole thing, this is categorically a blur album. It’s a different sounding blur album, but that suits me just fine. Coxon’s wildly varied, always-perfect guitar parts could only be him and Alex James’ always-underrated bass playing emerges from the more instant thrills of the vocal melodies. He’s integral to that first single and he’s at the heart of a track that I just cannot shake. It has been a near-constant ear-worm and I’m increasingly of the opinion that it’s one of the greatest songs they’ve ever made.
‘Barbaric’ is the happiest sad song I’ve encountered in some time and is, quite sincerely, perfect. I know with absolute certainty that I will be a gibbering wreck if I ever witness it performed live and yet it is highly likely to join ‘The Narcissist’ in getting copious airplay on Radio 2. It seems, at first, to all be there in the gradually evolving refrain, “I have lost the feeling that I thought I’d never lose. At what cost, the feeling that I thought I’d never lose? It is barbaric.” From the first person, it progresses through the second and concludes at first person plural in its final iteration. But there’s so much staggering imagery in there: “Now you can’t play to every taste, the powder keg of common cause. All of us carry trauma. And, in lieu of an explanation, I will pour oil from the cup on the pyre of abdication.” Personal separation or angst about a bond unthinkably broken? I suspect we’ll never know and I’m not sure we need to, as I’ve found so much in there from my own obsessive perspective. It’s the most heartbreaking song I’ve ever danced to while putting out the washing, the catchiest meditation on what remains once what seemed permanent has disintegrated before you.
The sense that words don’t quite mean what you think they do continues with ‘Russian Strings’ which opens “Where are you now, where are you now? Are you coming back to us? Are you online? Are you contactable, again?” If we’re pursuing the threads of separation, then this seems to fit rather neatly, but the aching chorus of “the tenement blocks came crashing down. With headphones on, you won’t hear that much”, seems to muddy those waters, especially with that title. There’s talk of “strings attached to all of us”, but are they holding us up or guiding our actions? The visual imagery of destruction lends itself to metaphorical interpretations, but it’s also notable that the band felt compelled to debut it live during an Irish gig on the day that there were rumours of a coup against Putin. Despite it all, Damon has a straightforward solution: “so turn the music up. I’m hitting the hard stuff.” Are we drowning out our complicity as it’s easier than trying to make sense of how we live?
What seems the record’s slightest moment is at its centre. ‘The Everglades (For Leonard)’ is - frankly - gorgeous, a plucked guitar refrain accompanying a fragile vocal of reflection. Sparse percussion creeps in slowly, before a final section erupts with laser-targeted emotive strings that slowly inveigle their way into your affections until one day you find yourself welling up while trying to write about it. Named after an encounter with a mural of Leonard Cohen during a hotel stay in Montreal, it seems to search for beauty and purpose in moments of darkness. But it’s not that simple and seems as relevant to our approach to the planet as to rebuilding daily existence after a seismic shift. The second half really is striking, Damon creaking slightly as the resignation creeps in at the close: “I think it’s just too late.”
After the aforementioned lead single comes a beguilingly shuddering tale of farewells built around a vibrating beat that projects an insistent rhythmic incline. ‘Goodbye Albert’ is mid-paced but bizarrely alive, Graham conjuring some splendidly lyrical wails from his guitar. As is not uncommon across ‘The Ballad Of Darren’, the chorus mutates across the track, but it begins as “I stayed away. I gave you time. Why don’t you talk to me anymore? Don’t punish me forever.” Seeming to address a broken friendship, pushed and pulled after previous intimacy, it further enhances notions of isolation and irreconcilable distance. A slightly disembodied, treated double-tracking of the vocal offers yet more of a disconnect, making the listener question the meaning and splintering Damon himself into several parts.
Albarn loves island imagery, be it cracker, snotty or little, and ‘Far Away Island’ is an enigmatic addition to the collection. It seems a little undercooked at first, but you wait until the combined Damon and Graham backing vocals kick in along with a cha-cha-cha rhythm. The main vocal is faintly disembodied, the reverb playing its part in a curious lyric of barely plausible attempts at acceptance. Wondering about another’s whereabouts – “what are you doing tonight? Are you dancing?” – moves to an attempt at stoicism: “I know you think I must be lost now, but I’m not – anymore.” That this is swiftly followed by a plaintive “I’m cut to pieces and I’m dancing alone with the moon and the white whale,” seems to turn this into an internal dialogue played out in song. And even if you don’t want to break down the meaning, the string part in its final act is, once again, majestic, the brevity adding a dreamlike quality to these unsure footsteps.
Penultimate track ‘Avalon’ is a clever bit of work, veering between two very different terrains. Initially, it seems of a kind with its close neighbours, admittedly with some delightful brass added to the mix, only for the main hook to kick in and evoke the textures of the mid-Nineties to the extent that you can pretty much picture Damon doing his affected arms raised and head-cocked pose. The brief, ornamental piano trill just prior to the second verse is the richest form of musical comfort food and Graham’s having great fun during the chorus. Despite the vivid imagery and performative heft, the ‘Avalon’ at the song’s heart seems to be in Devon, where Albarn now resides and seems at ease, even if “I overdo my dose and I don’t even know I’m here anymore.”
The deceptively hazy early moments of closer ‘The Heights’ are perfectly poised, Dave Rowntree’s sombre drumbeat kicking in eventually before strings with an intensity oddly evocative of ‘A Moon Shaped Pool’ leap in. It creates a quite staggering dichotomy between the balmy wash of sound early on and the frenetic sawing away that slowly transforms into a squall of feedback which is cut ruthlessly to form an abrupt conclusion. No neat resolution, no punchy farewell. The jarring break leaves the door open, not as a guarantee but simply as a reminder that this band’s story is never finished. Given that the press release refers to this being a song, at least in part, about the devoted followers of the band – “standing in the back row, this one’s for you” – it further enhances the sense of this being a renewal of the relationship rather than an attempted closure.
This is a lithe and bewitching record that quite transparently refuses to fall back on past glories. Albarn spoke soon after the announcement of its existence about ruthlessly condensing twenty songs down to the ten for the main record, with several others appearing as bonus tracks. It was a collective effort after he realised how much the songs benefited from their input, although it took Coxon and James asserting themselves to ensure it played out that way. “We were very hard on ourselves,” he told The S*n, and there really isn’t an ounce of fat across its thirty-six minutes.
They didn’t need to release a new album and have absolutely nothing to prove to anybody. That ‘The Ballad Of Darren’ is here speaks to the rock solid foundations of blur’s initial creative partnership and the still fertile intuition that occurs when they’re in the studio. It was recorded against a pretty hard deadline but it feels anything but rushed. James Ford’s production is well suited to this endeavour and he clearly knew how to get the best out of them. ‘Barbaric’ will maintain the radio momentum and the campaign around this album has been superbly orchestrated. The warmth towards the band that lingered in the air for a few days following their Glastonbury headline set in 2009 has been sustained for weeks and so many of us are as deeply in love with them now as we ever have been.
Despite all of the above, plenty of questions remain. Given how personal the subject matter is here, is it ludicrous to suggest that several of these lyrics could also be a rumination on the early-Noughties rift between Damon and Graham? ‘St. Charles Square’ seems to combine the impact of various break-ups, so there’s no certainty around events being contemporary. Does that distinctive 2004 cover photo of Gourock Outdoor Pool taken by Martin Parr pull together the numerous narrative strands? There’s a swimmer in isolation, trying to go forwards under bleak skies but contained or protected by clear parameters, the seats representing an audience past or future. The lifeguard’s not there, so the figure will need to survive on their own. Of course, it’s possible to overthink things, but it’s fun, isn’t it? Certainly more fun than already obsessing over when the next record will come or moaning about what this isn’t.
Given the relative paucity of upbeat tracks here – arguably 35% of the record, allowing for the chorus of ‘Avalon’ – it seems certain that anyone rushing to make a judgement on ‘The Ballad Of Darren’ will run the risk of spoiling their pleasure before it’s even begun. Yes, all music benefits from time, but this album has expanded over the last few weeks in particular to swallow me whole. I’m glad my ‘proper’ review of it was filed before that happened as I’m no longer sure whether my critical faculties remain intact for this one. I’m not even slightly tired of any aspect of these ten songs and I’ve played ‘Darren’ more frequently and intensely than any other release I can think of for well over a decade. I’m increasingly confident that several of my all-time favourite blur tracks are on here and I am regularly stopped in my tracks by ever-changing moments. When Steve Lamacq welled up in front of them and said “I’ve missed you” after listening to ‘The Narcissist’, I knew exactly how he felt. As Albarn has commented recently, this is their “first legit album since ‘13’.” This doesn’t mean I don’t love ‘Think Tank’ and ‘The Magic Whip’, but this is very clearly the work of blur – and it’s the blur of 2023. So, no, it won’t sound like ‘Trimm Trabb’, ‘Jubilee’ or ‘Strange News From Another Star’. It sounds new and it sounds unique within their catalogue. And that is plenty for me.