Review Summary: At their most vulnerable.
It seems Blur finally settled into a pace of their own, allowing themselves to feel the joys of playing together once again. Conflicts between Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon are settled, the two offering each other the necessary creative space these days. 2015’s The Magic Whip
was unsurprisingly solid, touching various moments from their discography amid new directions. Its eclectic sound left many doors open as to what we could further expect from the band. Functioning as an on-and-off project since the 2009 reunion, there was no pressure to maintain any momentum. Also, working spontaneously seemed to be the trick to keep things interesting for the quartet. As a result, The Ballad of Darren
was as much of a surprise for them as it is for us apparently. Almost a decade after its predecessor, entering full legacy mode, you could say there’s no need for them to release new music. Still, this is an act that became more interesting after their commercial peak. The record could have taken any sonic form, especially due to a newfound eagerness to record fresh material. While more familiar with their mid-‘90s output than their experimental phases, the LP definitely puts a mature spin on it.
Most of the tracks have reportedly started as demos composed by Damon on tour with Gorillaz last year, then passed on to the guys to work their magic on them. The entire record was developed and finished this spring. At a length of 36 minutes, this is by far their briefest affair. Nevertheless, it does not feel rushed or a jukebox selection of Blur’s previous styles. The intimate vibe it boasts offers a different experience from the more bombastic, big budget records they usually craft. In most cases, you can hear just the four musicians playing their instruments and minimal overdubs. “The Ballad”, a tune bodyguard Darren kept nagging Albarn to finish for 20 years now, fittingly opens this late evening listen. A straightforward, reflective number, it sets an overall bittersweet mood via a dry drum beat and soft piano chords. Over them, Coxon’s weeping guitar solos become an instant treat, but perhaps too swift to truly sink in. Meanwhile, “Russian Strings” and “The Everglades” share lovely, low-key moments, whether the former’s lush, aristocratic-like, piano-led melodies or the mellow acoustic guitars of the latter. The rather downcast tone in the front man’s voice haunts most of the album, laced with corresponding lyrics often talking about loss and longing. A handful of Albarn’s friends passed away lately, so it’s understandable he unloaded this burden in these mournful cuts.
Unfortunately, the upbeat tracks are scarce on The Ballad of Darren
. Thankfully, the ones present are all highlights: “St. Charles Square” harkens to The Great Escape
, Graham’s dissonant leads being a tad more poignant. It’s a fun tune coming from a side of Blur that should have had more dedicated room here. Then, “Barbaric” infuses a dose of Gorillaz-ness that can’t be unheard, yet its playful rhythm and charming singalongs automatically get you hooked. It is probably the catchiest ditty here alongside first single, “The Narcissist”. With infectious vocals, especially during the chorus and sweet guitar chords, it makes for one of the most immediate Blur singles in over 20 years. The remaining numbers all share laid back tempos, the most memorable of them being “Goodbye Albert”. There are some gorgeous harmonies between the melody and Damon’s croon. An added vocoder layer doubling him without detracting from the overall appeal is a rare, memorable feature for the respective instrument. Even though these are all solid songs, a couple of more energetic ones would have balanced the listen, especially during the second half. In the end, The Ballad of Darren
presents itself as probably the most humble collection in the band’s catalog. With considerable pretentiousness stripped off, we catch a glimpse of sustained vulnerability rarely seen on their records. The sound is familiar, yet miles away from previous efforts. That makes it interesting and ultimately, a success coming from an act who could have easily just rest on their laurels. Much like The Magic Whip
, it maintains multiple sonic doors open for a follow-up, whenever it might happen.