Six songs into The Ballad of Darren, on beautiful lead single ‘The Narcissist’, Damon Albarn sings: ‘I’ma shine a light in your eyes/You’ll probably shine it back on me.’ It’s an action that speaks to the immediacy and drive of Blur’s ninth album. As it makes itself known to you, it asks you to give back. The light of the ten songs here flows in both directions. There is a commune made between artist and listener, a deeply personal reflection of Albarn’s recent experience of loss and pain, coupled with the listeners love of one of this country’s seminal acts.
Blur are undoubtedly one of Britain’s ‘great’ bands, woven into the cultural consciousness that they had almost become part of the brickwork. To return after eight years with an album as excellent as The Ballad of Darren is a reminder of why they are so beloved. There are forays into the early abrasive guitar bashing on ‘St. Charles Square’, orchestral trills and thrills on ‘Russian Strings’ and melancholy guitar jangles on the earworm ‘Barbaric’. Still, it sounds like the same band who gave us ‘Tender’ alongside ‘Song 2’ – there is personality here that just isn’t present on any of Graham Coxon’s (excellent) solo work, or on Albarn’s many (as popular?) side-projects.
When Blur announced their headline Wembley shows, and soon after the impending arrival of this album, there was an element of surprise. The sense from Albarn over the years regarding a reformation had always been tentative. In many ways, the success of Gorillaz made people wonder if perhaps that’s where his heart now lies. It may be controversial to say, but there is no Gorillaz song that carries half-the heart of album closer ‘The Heights’. As Albarn croons, and the band plays, it’s hard not to hope that this is not the end.
Blur are often cast off by the casual listener as just about the singles. Of course, when it’s getting close to last orders, and ‘Girls & Boys’ is playing over the pub speakers, and the lagers really starting to hit, it’s easy to think: yep, this is something special. But as is often the case, it’s the deeper dive into the catalogue where the real gems lie and The Ballad of Darren is another fantastic addition to the canon of Blur. Whilst The Magic Whip served a purpose, way back in 2015, it never really felt like a Blur album in the true sense – and in fact Albarn has gone on record to admit as much. There seems to be a real energy on this return, and coupled with the emphatic and much-celebrated Wembley shows, it could be a (hopeful) sign that there is more to come.
The new Blur album is out now and can be ordered here: https://www.blur.co.uk/album/
Alex Sarychkin can be found to tweet on occasion here: @inalexworld