Blur, “The Ballad of Darren”

The Brit-pop quartet play it shockingly and crankily tight, wrenchingly emotional, and wondrously melodic on their ninth studio album.

Blur, The Ballad of Darren

The Brit-pop quartet play it shockingly and crankily tight, wrenchingly emotional, and wondrously melodic on their ninth studio album.

Words: A.D. Amorosi

July 24, 2023

The Ballad of Darren

Loving Damon Albarn when solely being fed a diet of Gorillaz albums—along with the grassy-knoll-pop of his 2021 solo effort—to break things up is a gloriously messy but not always filling meal. That isn’t to say that I’ve grown tired of Albarn’s G-cartoon dub-funk. Rather, I believe that he’s wearied of it, as 2023’s Cracker Island was a tad listless in spots and Gorillaz’s accompanying tour, though dynamic, was a rehash of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense vibe. Into the breach, thankfully (for us, for Albarn), comes our heroes of the ’90s Brit-pop stakes, Blur (with Pulp right behind, and Oasis still nowhere to be seen), and the rip-snorting, grouchily rocking, yet somehow loveliest of the quartet’s nine studio albums, The Ballad of Darren.

Considering Blur’s wonky art-rock birthright of Bowie, Ray Davies, and Wire, with dabs of electro thrown in, Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James, and Dave Rowntree play it shockingly and crankily tight, wrenchingly emotional (at times), and wondrously melodic for Darren’s 10 songs. Better than their last reunion LP, and named for the band’s forever bodyguard who encouraged Albarn to finish a track that’s become the elegantly eerie opener “The Ballad,” the new Blur record moves in several directions all at once before landing on an agitated but blissful melancholic terra firma. Using Bowie as a touchtone for several tracks—the noisily Scary Monsters–esque “St. Charles Square,” the quieter and icier “Goodbye Albert”—Albarn and his deadpan vocals look to that which sits below the floorboards and the surfaces of old friendships in which to wax distantly poetic.

There’s more than a little loss to be found in the lyrics and matching musicality of Darren, the most poignant of which comes in the low-fidelity “Barbaric” and its sadly drifting melodies and pliably rubbery instrumentation. That same connectivity between the players and the co-joined melodies they’ve written—beautifully and in magical 3-D, perhaps credited to new producer James Ford—lingers and uplifts throughout the entirety of the album. 

That Blur is a band with a sense of uplift to go with their mirthful melancholia roars through every gently jiving tune (“The Ballad”), every naggingly insistent, motorik rocker (“The Narcissist”), every verdant tribute to their heroes (“The Everglades (For Leonard)”), and every open-ended and oblique epiphany (album closer “The Heights”). To say that The Ballad of Darren is Blur’s best and most genuinely unified effort since 1994’s Parklife might be a gilding of the lily. But only slightly.