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The Ballad Of Darren Amanda Farah , July 17th, 2023 09:34

In a year that has already seen the releases of a Gorillaz album, a solo record from Dave Rowntree, and the debut from Graham Coxon’s the Waeve, a new Blur album was an unlikely addition to the docket. With so many outlets for their work, what creative impulse drives their ninth album?

At the risk of being too on the nose, The Ballad Of Darren leans hard into the ‘ballad’ of the album’s title. It’s reasonably consistent for Blur’s albums to have a cohesive sound to them, and in this case it’s a gentler approach, an almost-pop record with strong choruses but more ambling verses. There’s a 70s alt-pop feeling similar to Lou Reed or John Cale’s solo work, especially in the string arrangements on ‘The Ballad’, the verses on ‘Avalon’, and ‘Russian Strings’.

Familiarity is found on ‘The Heights’, with its interplay of clanging distortion and acoustic guitars underscoring Damon Albarn’s vulnerable vocal. It’s in keeping with the overall more reserved approach to the album. Though mostly less noisy, Coxon still puts his stamp on the record: ‘Goodbye Albert’ has a cheeky, distorted folk guitar line to play off of the slight vocoder effect on the vocals and ‘Far Away Island’ features a satisfyingly weird warbling guitar solo. But the single ‘St. Charles Square’, with its guitar tone that sounds like it’s lifted from Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), is a crunchy, high-energy outlier.

Instead it’s another gentle almost-pop song, ‘Barbaric’, that makes the intention of the album clear. Damon Albarn’s repetition and increasingly emotional delivery of "We have lost that feeling that we never thought we’d lose" — and the ambiguity of whom it is he feels he’s drifting from — is an emotional gut punch that resonates.

Lyrics like those illustrate the character of The Ballad Of Darren. The overarching sentiment is melancholia, self-reflection as a reckoning, a tallying up of shifting priorities and personal losses along the way.

The peak of this is ‘The Narcissist’, a perhaps harsh self-assessment of the thrill of performing and ultimately an ode to what keeps pulling Blur back together. If their late 90s records were marked by the fallout of Britpop and the fallout of relationships, The Ballad Of Darren is marked by this existential contemplation — not quite a breakup or a crisis, but the weight of the changes through the years. It’s a statement of where Blur are now.