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Blur: The Ballad of Darren review – mature melancholia spiked with adventure | Blur

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Nine albums in, Blur do not owe anyone any bangers. They are a four-piece very much in the post-urgent stage of their career, reaping the rewards of their long musical life at a pair of ecstatically received Wembley Arena mega-gigs a few weeks ago. These are men who have history of falling out (Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon, for two), falling back in together, spending time as a band because they want to, as a pleasurable sideshow to their main gigs. Gorillaz, Albarn’s other spectacularly successful vehicle, remain active. In his spare time he’s writing another opera. Coxon, a longtime solo artist, has the Waeve, a rich collaboration with his songwriter partner, Rose Elinor Dougall. Drummer Dave Rowntree recently released a respectable debut solo record. Alex James, bass, makes cheese and runs a festival on his farm.

And yet, eight years on from their satisfying, if less pressing, last reunion album, The Magic Whip, Blur have produced a record that packs no little excitement. This swiftly wrought record, which James has compared to a surprise baby (“we didn’t know we were pregnant, and we gave birth in a supermarket car park”) finds late-life Blur on eloquent, emotional form. It’s an album that often looks back, while summoning textures and nuances that only add to their toolkit.

For those wondering, the Darren of the title is Darren “Smoggy” Evans, Blur’s longtime bodyguard, who consistently nagged at Albarn to finish a 2003 demo that has now become The Ballad – a graceful opening track that audibly cranks the band back into action with a whirr. It’s a love song, but when Coxon sings “we travelled around the world together” on backing vocals, it’s all too easy to transfer some of these loving words over to Blur themselves.

While there is no call for the aggro of their Britpop heyday, the scenes that had Evans hauling Albarn out of the grip of gig audiences, the lairiest track here, St Charles Square, makes plain Blur’s connection to their younger selves – and to David Bowie. Coxon is on sour, chunky form, while Albarn combines mock-horror screaming about “something down here… living under the floorboards” with a quipped aside of “Tesco disco!” (It’s an old band in-joke about a Tesco Metro opening near a former flat of James’s.) They succeed in making what is now presumably a very nice west London location sound louchely disreputable. “Every generation has its gilded poseurs,” sings Albarn, with bored affection.

Pop tunes you can dance to? They have those. Barbaric is all gentle jangle and groovy shuffle, punctuated by a cross-current of hurt, with a singalong chorus that would be beatific if it weren’t so sad: “We have lost the feeling that we thought we’d never lose.” It’s somewhat ironic, given Blur have clearly not lost a nanoparticle of their chemistry.

The band were always about far more than cocky triumphalism, of course. Their most consistent calling card has probably been melancholy – a core bittersweetness often deliciously complicated by Coxon’s acerbic guitar lines, or James’s bouncy, sucked-cheek bass. Even the quieter, more musically numinous passages here satisfy. The Bowie-leaning Goodbye Albert oscillates elegantly, with Albarn ruing the end of a friendship. “I’d be there, not just send flowers/ But I think you’d rather I stayed away,” he intones.

The frontman recently publicly praised Arctic Monkeys, and there is the merest hint of Alex Turner’s latterday orchestral crooner bent in some of these arrangements: the classy pining of Russian Strings, for one. The two bands also share a producer in James Ford.

At the centre of the album is The Narcissist, the album’s lead single. At the risk of reading too much into the “I” pronoun (Albarn is not always confessional), this is an eloquent analysis of fame, of taking drugs at neolithic monuments and of staring too long at “the darkness”.

Again, Coxon provides tender backing vocals, cleverly echoing Albarn’s line of “no echo”. Then almost out of nowhere, the latter pulls the emotional rug from under an already tear-jerking song. “Oh glorious world,” he croons, “Oh potent waves, valleys gone wild/ Connect us to love, and keep us peaceful for a while.” It’s an all-out Albarn classic – any band, any era.


Blur - The Ballad of Darren

Nine albums in, Blur do not owe anyone any bangers. They are a four-piece very much in the post-urgent stage of their career, reaping the rewards of their long musical life at a pair of ecstatically received Wembley Arena mega-gigs a few weeks ago. These are men who have history of falling out (Damon Albarn and guitarist Graham Coxon, for two), falling back in together, spending time as a band because they want to, as a pleasurable sideshow to their main gigs. Gorillaz, Albarn’s other spectacularly successful vehicle, remain active. In his spare time he’s writing another opera. Coxon, a longtime solo artist, has the Waeve, a rich collaboration with his songwriter partner, Rose Elinor Dougall. Drummer Dave Rowntree recently released a respectable debut solo record. Alex James, bass, makes cheese and runs a festival on his farm.

And yet, eight years on from their satisfying, if less pressing, last reunion album, The Magic Whip, Blur have produced a record that packs no little excitement. This swiftly wrought record, which James has compared to a surprise baby (“we didn’t know we were pregnant, and we gave birth in a supermarket car park”) finds late-life Blur on eloquent, emotional form. It’s an album that often looks back, while summoning textures and nuances that only add to their toolkit.

For those wondering, the Darren of the title is Darren “Smoggy” Evans, Blur’s longtime bodyguard, who consistently nagged at Albarn to finish a 2003 demo that has now become The Ballad – a graceful opening track that audibly cranks the band back into action with a whirr. It’s a love song, but when Coxon sings “we travelled around the world together” on backing vocals, it’s all too easy to transfer some of these loving words over to Blur themselves.

While there is no call for the aggro of their Britpop heyday, the scenes that had Evans hauling Albarn out of the grip of gig audiences, the lairiest track here, St Charles Square, makes plain Blur’s connection to their younger selves – and to David Bowie. Coxon is on sour, chunky form, while Albarn combines mock-horror screaming about “something down here… living under the floorboards” with a quipped aside of “Tesco disco!” (It’s an old band in-joke about a Tesco Metro opening near a former flat of James’s.) They succeed in making what is now presumably a very nice west London location sound louchely disreputable. “Every generation has its gilded poseurs,” sings Albarn, with bored affection.

Pop tunes you can dance to? They have those. Barbaric is all gentle jangle and groovy shuffle, punctuated by a cross-current of hurt, with a singalong chorus that would be beatific if it weren’t so sad: “We have lost the feeling that we thought we’d never lose.” It’s somewhat ironic, given Blur have clearly not lost a nanoparticle of their chemistry.

The band were always about far more than cocky triumphalism, of course. Their most consistent calling card has probably been melancholy – a core bittersweetness often deliciously complicated by Coxon’s acerbic guitar lines, or James’s bouncy, sucked-cheek bass. Even the quieter, more musically numinous passages here satisfy. The Bowie-leaning Goodbye Albert oscillates elegantly, with Albarn ruing the end of a friendship. “I’d be there, not just send flowers/ But I think you’d rather I stayed away,” he intones.

The frontman recently publicly praised Arctic Monkeys, and there is the merest hint of Alex Turner’s latterday orchestral crooner bent in some of these arrangements: the classy pining of Russian Strings, for one. The two bands also share a producer in James Ford.

At the centre of the album is The Narcissist, the album’s lead single. At the risk of reading too much into the “I” pronoun (Albarn is not always confessional), this is an eloquent analysis of fame, of taking drugs at neolithic monuments and of staring too long at “the darkness”.

Again, Coxon provides tender backing vocals, cleverly echoing Albarn’s line of “no echo”. Then almost out of nowhere, the latter pulls the emotional rug from under an already tear-jerking song. “Oh glorious world,” he croons, “Oh potent waves, valleys gone wild/ Connect us to love, and keep us peaceful for a while.” It’s an all-out Albarn classic – any band, any era.

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