Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Blur The Ballad Of Darren


Damon Albarn has lost something. “I just looked into my life/ And all I saw was that you’re not coming back,” he sings in the very first lines on The Ballad Of Darren, Blur’s unexpected new release. It immediately sets up a tension that hangs over the entire album. Albarn was never a stranger to melancholy, but grief permeates many of his lyrics here. At the same time, The Ballad Of Darren marks the first time Blur have made an album together in eight years. It’s a would-be triumphant return, not without little nods to their history together, but far quieter in scope and tone than one might’ve expected.

There’s never a guarantee of what exactly might happen in Blur’s future. After their initial split in the early 2000s, there have been a handful of aborted recording sessions. They got back together to play shows in 2009, and then said there were no further plans. Some singles arrived a few years later. Then, in 2015, suddenly there was a new album called The Magic Whip. But that itself was almost a decade ago, and even with a hint now and then of Blur returning once more, you never really knew whether it would happen. It seems their reunions are fragile, and Albarn has often been blunt about his interests lying elsewhere. That makes it surprising that there’s a new Blur album at all, but it makes it really surprising that Albarn also brought some deeply personal songwriting to the mix.

Going by Alex James and Dave Rowntree’s accounts in a recent Rolling Stone profile, the whole Ballad Of Darren era emerged from the opportunity to play Wembley, and also barely happened. James recalls an initial meeting to see if there would be plans beyond the show at Wembley, and it was a strained encounter. But then the quartet gathered in Albarn’s studios at the beginning of 2023, first expecting to try and work on a few new tracks for the summer. Momentum snowballed, and soon they were wrapping up the ninth Blur album and releasing its lead single a mere two weeks later.

On one hand, you can hear the spontaneity of The Ballad Of Darren’s genesis in the music. It feels casual and comfortable, the sound of four men who have been playing together on and off for 30+ years coming back home. Albarn has called it the first “legit” Blur album since 13, accounting for Coxon’s absence on Think Tank and the pseudo-accident of The Magic Whip. Blur’s first reunion album also barely happened, the result of loose last-minute sessions in Hong Kong when a tour date got cancelled; Coxon stitched a bunch of it together and pushed the band to finish it. While The Magic Whip managed to quote several past Blurs while also edging them into new possibilities, The Ballad Of Darren isn’t just the “first legit” Blur album because all four of them were hammering away together in the studio. It’s also a reclamation of a core Blur ethos mostly unheard for decades.

The Ballad Of Darren is almost more of a continuation of Blur’s earliest attempts at reunion music, the one-offs “Fool’s Day,” “The Puritan,” and “Under The Westway.” From the classic Blur logo’s resurgence on down, the album is an aged iteration of their Life trilogy aesthetic; its grey-skied pool photo even makes it feel like a bleary comedown from The Great Escape. There is little of the experimentation from Blur, 13, or Think Tank. It’s a very pure distillation of the band, with some of their least embellished and most straightforward songs.

While you can hear many of these qualities as assets, initial listens also had me wishing that The Ballad Of Darren hadn’t come together so quickly, that the band had pushed themselves to explore. That word “ballad” in the title should be taken seriously: Compared to the vivid overflow of ideas on almost every prior Blur album, this is a streamlined 36 minutes of Blur in their mellowest form. Albarn’s melodies are pretty as ever, but in that sleepier mood of his latter-day work. While the album’s entire existence is a surprise, there are no real surprises musically. After eight years, it can feel a bit deflating at first, but the album also grows on you if you can manage to reframe it in Blur’s catalogue. This might not reach for the stratospheric highs of their prime, but there’s something powerful about them making sense of their connection today with an album that is by design less sprawling and ambitious.

With the band’s commitment to muted contemplation, they emerge with some stunning little moments. “The Ballad” is a gorgeous opener setting up the rest of the album, while “Avalon” sits near the end as a poignant reckoning for Albarn, reflecting on his move to the English coast and building a paradise but still seeking some kind of actual contentment. While the uptempo songs don’t have the big-swing choruses we once expected from Albarn, they each prove to be sneaky earworms. “St. Charles Square” is no “Bugman” but still translates freakout in measured corrosion and Bowie-isms. Both “Barbaric” and “The Narcissist” are gliding, nimble songs — Blur’s Britpop weathered by time, but still delivered in the album’s warm, bummer beach day sonic palette.

The Ballad Of Darren’s timbre makes a lot of sense when you pore over Albarn’s lyrics, which are littered with references to lost love, breakups, people meeting long ago now drifted apart. He opens “St. Charles Square” with “I fucked up/ I’m not the first to do it/ Must forgo now, your smile.” In “Barbaric,” he pleads: “And I would like if you’ve got the time/ To talk to you about what this breakup has done to me/ I have lost the feeling that I thought I’d never lose.” In “Russian Strings” he asks “Where are you now?” while fleeing to Belgrade to hit the hard stuff and chain-smoke, before he sings “Wishing I could still make you happy” in “Avalon.” Albarn has side-stepped questions on whether the lyrics are literally depicting a split with his partner Suzi Winstanley, leaving the listener to wonder whether the album could be a less drug-addled sequel to 13, a meditation on the friendships over the years, or even a meta-document of Blur’s own peaks and valleys.

As honest as the individual members are about the difficulty of getting back together, there is an intimate sense of celebration on The Ballad Of Darren. The name is a reference to a long-time Blur crew member, who always hassled Albarn to finish “The Ballad” — a solo demo he first cut back in 2003. Albarn considers the album a “family affair” — a true representation of Blur as a group. Some songs use that as subject matter, with very different perspectives of onstage performance in “The Narcissist” and “The Heights.” The latter closes the album as a sort of love letter to music, fans, and the band’s own wild ride. Then The Ballad Of Darren coasts out on a sudden crest of distortion, one of its only plot twists leaving any resolution open-ended.

Blur’s albums used to be kaleidoscopic visions of life in England, defining a decade and a whole pop movement. In their fifties, they’d be foolish to try and reclaim that mantle today. So it may be strange to encounter this, their smallest and most contained album, as the next long-awaited comeback. The more time you sit with it, The Ballad Of Darren starts to feel like the exact sort of album they should make in 2023: no bombastic resurrection, but a fond wave backwards while admitting where they are now. If there’s never another Blur album, this one is a wistful epilogue. Yet it can still leave you with the hope that after hearing all the searching and yearning in Albarn’s voice, he might yet find what he’s looking for alongside his old friends.

The Ballad Of Darren is out 7/21 on Parlophone/Warner.

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