BLUR The Ballad of Darren album packshot

Blur – The Ballad of Darren (Parlophone)

Whilst the world waited for one of the legends of the era that is known in some circles as Britpop to reappear, the ones that won the battle but, apparently, not the war back in the mid to late nineties, crept in under the radar. But then, music always was their radar.

Not the hype. They may have certain similarities to their northern chums, but Blur always did things a bit differently to Oasis. This isn’t the place to slag Oasis off, they’re all buddies now anyway.

No, if anything, this Blur return feels different. This is their first LP in eight years not over twenty of course, but, in retrospect, whilst there were good things on The Magic Whip, this time, they’ve done it the right way. Whereas before, several aborted Hong Kong sessions were nearly scrapped until Graham set about piecing it together and making it the record it was. With The Ballad of Darren, they recorded altogether in London, with James Ford, and produced what they have described as the feeling akin to when they’d finished Modern Life Is Rubbish. This can only be a very good thing.

It was never going to be exactly like MLIR but there are similarities in its music hall, vaudeville sing-a-long quality that Blur have always had when at their best.

What you can immediately say is that The Ballad of Darren feels like it was from their peak years. It could slip in between Blur and 13 quite comfortably, proven by how ‘St. Charles Square’ and ‘The Narcissist’ seamlessly opened the Wembley Stadium shows and was the emotional penultimate gut punch before ‘The Universal’ floored us all.

For this reason, it is a bit of a surprise that ‘St Charles Square’ doesn’t open the record, not least because it is probably the most guitar hook heavy on the LP. ‘Ballad’ is a gentle opener, as the name would suggest, but seems to be a dark tale of something that stems from the earlier days of the band and followed Damon through the years.
The theme continues with ‘St Charles Square’ with lyrics suggesting he’s still battling demons. “’Cause there’s something down here and it’s living under the floorboards/Its grabbed me round the neck with its long and slender claws/Don’t leave me here baby don’t leave me completely/’Cause I might not get back to myself at all”.

He’s written in the past in an abstract way about his encounters and issues with drugs, ‘Beetlebum’ believed to be about him dabbling with heroin as the enormity of the Britpop battles and fame threatened to consume him. ‘The Narcissist’ talks about the ego, dropping acid, addiction and an attempt to not go under, but like the lead single from 1997’s eponymous LP, it is an anthem for the lugubrious but with all Blur songs of this ilk, there is hope and optimism.

Barbaric’ is decidedly jaunty, considering he is basically talking about a break up, the idea of the love disappearing and the outcome is devastating on the parties at the end of a relationship. However, this is bordering sing-a-long territory. ‘Russian Strings’ is very minimal, ironically with no strings, Damon’s Hammond organ supplying the flourishes. ‘The Everglades’ isn’t about the alligator infested swamps of Florida, but continues the theme of loss over arpeggio acoustic guitar.

Far Away Island’ is a gorgeous lullaby, that plays on the idea of an island as a metaphor whilst the tune is riding quiet waves on a sun drenched atoll, and again the lyrics and mood are incongruous as Damon sounds defiant “I know you think I must be lost now/but I’m not” all the while gently cooing us to sleep.

Avalon’ is nostalgic with the drawn out brass notes creating a wistful atmosphere which is punctuated by reality of now, war and depression whilst trying to stay optimistic. ‘The Heights’ seems to suggest the struggle to drag himself up to perform “Suppose I’ve got to find the heights/I gave a lot of heart/so did you/Standing in the back row/this one is for you”. Is this the final full stop on Blur or can it never die?

He has said he wrote the record when on tour with Gorillaz, which is a notorious time for introspection, melancholy and reflection, possibly not in a healthy way especially if this was a tour of the U.S with the day long journeys. Taking the lyrics out of context he seemed to be suffering huge guilt, some could be interpreted as being about Graham. He spoke on stage at Wembley about meeting Graham when they were 11 and 12, there are touching photos of them together behind the scenes of the momentous gigs. There is a palpable love which they seemed to have rekindled between the last Blur LP and this one and Damon could be exorcising his regret about the disintegration of their friendship before Think Tank until their reunion in 2009 for Glastonbury. It feels as though Damon has been bottling up these emotions since then. Maybe he is becoming aware of his own mortality, as he gets closer, to 60.

The two singles possibly pointed towards a different Blur record than the one we have been given, but is this actually the one we should expect? This isn’t 1993 Blur, even if life is rubbish, this is 2023 and we’re all older, a little wiser, a little sadder and maybe less hopeful. But the glass is always partially full to a lesser or greater extent. Depending on where you are. Literally or metaphorically. Blur have been reaching The Heights. Hopefully they will continue to, in their own time.

BLUR The Ballad of Darren album packshot

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.