Eight or so years following their Hong Hong-inspired effort The Magic Whip, blur are back once more. Having just played two of the biggest shows of their career, headlining back-to-back dates at Wembley stadium, Damon Albarn & co. have returned with a bang, and their eighth studio LP The Ballad of Darren compliments their status as elder statesmen of alternative rock.
The Ballad of Darren opens with a soft and sensitive cut. ‘The Ballad’ is a gentle and slow, synth-led number that is overwhelmed by the crashing entrance of ‘St Charles Square’ just as soon as it begins. The second single from the record is an early high point, with clear shades of Bowie, or – more specifically – Graham Coxon channelling Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar for some fantastically jagged riffs and fuzzy interludes. Albarn’s delivery is great too, “Tesco disco, the room is shrinking fast around me” is drawled off the beat, delivered with effortlessly cool nonchalance.
‘Barbaric’ is a bouncy pop song, taking blur right back to their art-pop roots, a track which will rocket to the top of blur’s ‘best ever songs’ lists without a stumble. ‘Russian Strings’, meanwhile, pays homage to the eccentricities of the blur lexicon remarkably. There are definite parallels that can be drawn between Albarn and his Sheffield successor Alex Turner, with the new blur record exploring softer and more introspective themes, like those found on The Car. The two are definitely similar – musical chameleons who adapt and subvert with each new project.
The lead single ‘The Narcissist’ takes on a whole new shape in the context of the record. The gentle instrumentation and soft rhythm section makes so much more sense with the rest of the album surrounding it. It’s sensitive and soulful, with Albarn’s soaring vocals taking centre stage. ‘Goodbye Albert’ is phenomenal, and is The Ballad distilled. Each musician has an ocean of space to lay down their contribution – a lightly strummed bassline and complementary drums allow Coxon space to weave captivating guitar takes in and out of Albarn’s words, before ascending up the scale in a beautifully paced solo. blur are seriously hitting a creative peak here.
It’s rare to encounter a genuine “no-skip” album, but The Ballad absolutely achieves it. Considering its more gentile reflection of blur, it would be easy for a record of this nature to become self-indulgent and bloated, but the London four-piece retains interest with fascinating compositions. Each members’ contribution coalesces flawlessly with one another; exhibiting a level of chemistry and understanding that can only be achieved through decades of playing together.
Album closer, ‘The Heights’, is a wonderful height. A proper “lighters in the air” moment for blur, ending in a swirl of wind noise and feedback that could loop back to The Ballad of Darren to start the whole thing over again. This is an utterly fantastic effort from one of the 90s’ best, their years of age and experience across such diverse projects lends itself to a perfect album.
photo credit: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis