Album Review: Blur, ‘The Ballad of Darren’

    On the surface, The Ballad of Darren sounds a little too comfortable for its own good. It whirls by casually in just 36 minutes, containing some of Blur’s most straightforward songs to date. Damon Albarn’s melodies are lush and uniformly mellow, James Ford’s production is polished but not overwrought, the band’s chemistry tight enough to elevate the whole thing. Albarn has called it “the first legit Blur album” since 1999’s 13; their last reunion LP, The Magic Whip, emerged from impromptu sessions while the band was stuck in Singapore after a tour date was cancelled, with Graham Coxon and producer Stephen Street pushing the album to completion over the next couple of years. The Ballad of Darren, meanwhile, came together swiftly and unexpectedly when Blur were offered to play a pair of huge shows at Wembley Stadium; Albarn presented a batch of songs he believed would fit on a new Blur album, and soon all four members gathered in the studio to build them out. In fact, the opening track originated as a demo Albarn first cut all the way back in 2003, and the album takes its name from the band’s longtime security guard, Darren “Smoggy” Evans, who urged him to finish it.

    Given the musicians’ various other ventures, there’s something magical and necessary about their ability to recapture the essence of the band in such spontaneous fashion; it’s hard to imagine it happening any other way without crumbling under its own weight. There are tracks that manage to conjure and condense the band’s aesthetic in an instantly familiar yet contained manner, while others reference back to the band’s history without allowing themselves to get too reflexive – lead single ‘The Narcissist’ excels at both. Though the success of that and the other pre-release single, ‘St. Charles Square’, may be tied to the excitement of a comeback, it’s not really the story that binds The Ballad of Darren – but it’s only because they’ve effectively worked through it that the album’s less-than-triumphant qualities shine through. Whatever flickers of nostalgia fans might cling onto here, the feeling of warm melancholy that glides over the record feels strikingly personal and anchored in the present, even as past traumas loom over.

    “Well, I know I can’t change the timеs/ I know I’m already breaking when I look into your eyes,” Albarn sings on ‘The Ballad’, a lovely opener that risks sounding a little too much like a solo cut. But as the album progresses, the band finds ways to wrestle with the helplessness and inertia of moving through a breakup – generally the main subject of these songs – that aren’t just gracefully mirroring the dull pain it leaves behind. Rather than feeling contradictory, the shimmering guitar and gently ambling groove on highlight ‘Barbaric’ suggest a shade of sincerity that can only come with time, situating the ultimate confession – “I have lost the feeling that I thought I’d never lose” – away from the immediate aftermath of heartbreak and towards acceptance, or a yearning for it. The album’s elegant presentation gets just the right amount of twisted on ‘Goodbye Albert’, whose gnarly guitar and vocoder vocals swell with a different kind of desperation (“I stayed away/ I gave you time/ Why don’t you talk to me anymore?/ Don’t punish me forever”), while ‘Avalon weaves in orchestral arrangements to gorgeous effect.

    But any tension that’s built into The Ballad of Darren sounds deliberately measured, especially as it oscillates between vague hope and middle-age resignation. On ‘The Everglades (For Leonard)’, the line between wispy sentiments and the kind that resonate on a more universal level feels a little too thin. But Blur manage to break the barrier on songs like ‘Russian Strings’ and ‘The Narcissist’, the latter of which fights back against the ego-driven, cynical voices in Albarn’s head by placing everyone who might identify with them on the same stage, subjects to the same ambiguous threat: “I’ll be shining light in your eyes/ You’ll probably shine it back on me.” We get to hear a glimpse of what it sounds like on closer ‘The Heights’, which finds Albarn “Seeing through the coma in our lives/ Something so bright out there you can’t even see it,” before getting swallowed up in a wave of distortion. Their new album shows a band no longer flirting with chaos but eager to find ways to tame it, but staring back in that final moment of destruction, self-inflicted or not, they lean fully into it. That ending you can’t control.

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    On the surface, The Ballad of Darren sounds a little too comfortable for its own good. It whirls by casually in just 36 minutes, containing some of Blur's most straightforward songs to date. Damon Albarn's melodies are lush and uniformly mellow, James Ford's production is...Album Review: Blur, 'The Ballad of Darren'