The Ballad Of Darren
Blur have been busy in 2023. Not necessarily as a unit – although they’re fresh from performing to 90,000 fans in London’s Wembley Stadium and they recorded their ninth studio The Ballad of Darren under the radar – but individually. In the last seven months, Albarn’s Gorillaz released their eighth record, while Dave Rowntree and Graham Coxon both debuted new projects with the former releasing his first solo record, Radio Songs and Coxon presenting another side to his artistry alongside partner Rose Ellinor Dougall as The Waeve.
News of The Ballad of Darren’s existence came as a surprise to fans and critics alike, especially given that at least three quarters of Blur had clearly been focusing on their individual pursuits. And yet, there were clues indicating that the band was on their minds. At least, it was when Northern Transmissions spoke to Graham Coxon and Rose Ellinor Dougall earlier this year about their excellent debut LP as The Waeve. Coxon referred to “two relationships now in music where they started as friendships and became something very special to [him].” One was Dougall, the other was Damon.
Has their musical kinship, one that was a driving force behind the magic of Modern Life Is Rubbish, Parklife, and 13, carried over into their latest offering? In a word; sometimes. That’s not the most committed overview, I know. But, then again, it doesn’t always feel like the commitment is reciprocated from the band. Albarn (albeit unintentionally) sums it up perfectly on “Barbaric” when he sings “You have lost / The feeling that you thought you’d never lose,” amidst a buoyant arrangement of bumbling bass riffs and happy-go-lucky tones dancing in the background. There are often moments where you can sense that Albarn has his hand stretched to reclaim Blur’s vitality of their earlier material. In the same song, it’s almost as though he’s somewhat aware that this album won’t be for everyone: “Now you can’t play to every taste.”
Working with producer James Ford, who brings a sophisticated palette (and perhaps some leftovers from Arctic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino) to the record, there’s an overarching lushness applied to the relatively minimal and wistfully intoned arrangements. The instances where Ford’s influence is most prominent (“The Ballad”, “Russian Strings”) are by far the most captivating and interesting turns on the record. Tonally, these moments are the most immediately enjoyable and feel the most right for Blur at this stage in their career. Opener, “The Ballad” is a promising beginning, in this regard. The very Ford-handed swell of strings heightens the emotion bolstering the interplay between Albarn and Coxon this track, especially when the latter answers Albarn’s “I fell in love with you,” with “I met you at an early show.”
Unfortunately, these slumberous and sweet moments are disrupted by the quartet returning to the brasher Britpop-driven “St Charles Square”, which makes them sound the bands that tried to imitate Blur’s past bravado, and if they aren’t doing impressions of themselves then they turn their hand at New Order-meets-Manic-Street-Preachers on “The Narcissist” or splice in some Radiohead-like effects in the outro of “The Everglades”. Elsewhere, the tumbling vocals on “Far Away Island” immediately heralds Bowie’s distinct style of layering vocals within songs for added texture. These moments make you feel the weight of the near decade that’s past Blur since their previous reunion in the studio. Given how little they resemble themselves here, it certainly does make you feel as though they were stuck in an identity crisis during the recording sessions.
There are glimmers of good in The Ballad of Darren, however, listening to these new songs makes you yearn for the infectious and boisterous nature of their previous material.
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