Blur – The Ballad of Darren
It came as a surprise when Blur announced their ninth album The Ballad of Darren. This is only their second since 2003 after The Magic Whip, released in 2015. 2023, meanwhile, has already been a stellar year for Blur members, with Damon Albarn securing a number-one with Gorillaz’s Cracker Island and guitarist Graham Coxon releasing a debut album as The Waeve, both released in February.
Anticipation is naturally high for the record, coming off the back of a pair of sold-out and highly acclaimed shows at Wembley Stadium, showing there is still plenty of appetite for all things Blur after 35 years as a group and lengthy periods away.
Lead single The Narcissist instantly calms any fears that fans might be disappointed, with a soft opening giving way to a rousing crescendo – it’s already become a live favourite after being played at their Wembley gigs.
It is to the band’s credit that they haven’t tried to go back to their Britpop roots and have continued to evolve, giving each member plenty of standout moments. James Ford who has worked on the recent Gorillaz records, produces the album, a natural fit with the production sounding exquisite.
There is more of a vulnerability to Albarn’s vocals than on previous Blur outings, aided by some more lo-fi leanings – at 55 he still has plenty to offer vocally. The lyrics are also more reflective and introspective, capturing the band members at later stages in life and ruminating on the pandemic and the losses of figures close to Albarn, like Tony Allen and Terry Hall. This makes the listening experience deeper and more melancholic.
Despite these more subdued instances, there are still those where we are treated to the more energetic indie we’ve come to expect, notably on St Charles Square, which has an almost grunge feel to it, built around a thunderous bassline from Alex James and standout guitar work from Coxon.
Russian Strings is a gorgeous track, with some of Albarn’s strongest vocals and some subtle yet beautiful work from the rest of the group, especially Coxon with a wonderful outro. Goodbye Albert further allows the guitarist to take centre stage with some virtuoso soloing.
The Ballad of Darren shows a band in perfect sync even after an extended stint away and working on other projects. There are some unexpected shifts into more ambient and lo-fi, but these feel like a natural shift in gear for a group that’s never been content to rest on their laurels and is always striving to try something different.
Across these ten tracks, Blur demonstrate that they are still determined to look forwards, delivering some of their most impressive and varied work to date after three-and-a-half decades. We can only hope that we don’t have another eight-year wait for the next record – but we should be grateful that this album lives up to the hype and then some. It’s another stellar entry in the discography of one of Britpop’s finest acts.
Image: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis
The Ballad of Darren is released on 21st July 2023. For further information or to order the album visit Blur’s website here.
Watch the video for the single St Charles Square here: