It’s almost impossible to imagine the pressures—whether on the outside from fans and the press, or relationally between the band’s 4 musicians, each pursuing their diverse side-projects, or as artists living in the shadow of your previous triumphs—on Brit-pop band, Blur, as they reconvene to record their 9th studio album, eight years after their previous release. Formed in 1988, the band’s popularity in the UK and Europe was buoyed by mid-90’s albums like Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, and The Great Escape, which failed to win over American listeners in a big way but introduced a new generation to Brit-pop sounds popularized by earlier innovators like The Kinks and XTC. In ’97, the band embraced a more lo-fi, guitar heavy approach on their biggest American hit single, “Song 2,” dominating alt-rock radio that year. The 2000’s saw frontman Damon Albarn’s attention turn to side project collaborations like The Gorillaz, a virtual band deeply informed by hip-hop and dance/pop, and a couple solo albums, although Blur released Think Tank, in ’03, and The Magic Whip a full dozen years later. Back in February of this year, Albarn’s Gorillaz released an 8th studio album, Cracker Island, including input from Stevie Nicks, Bad Bunny, Beck, and Tame Impala, around the same time that Blur drummer Dave Rowntree released his solo album, Radio Songs, and guitarist Graham Coxen debuted his collaborative group, The Waeve, on its self-titled release.
Curiously, in this time lush with new releases, Blur came back together to record The Ballad of Darren. One can imagine the temptation to attempt to out-rock their biggest, and let’s be honest most addictive single, “Song 2,” or somehow out-pop British hits like “Charmless Man,” “Country House,” and “Girls & Boys.” Instead, the band’s original four-some serves up a collection of Albarn’s songs, most reflective of the giveaway word in the title: “Ballad.” So, 35 years after these 20-ish mates first came together, they’ve delivered a pop-album deeply informed by the members transition into mid-life, with all its challenges and insights. Dominated by mid-tempo pop songs, and lyrics tempered by experience and any number of disappointments, the band digs in here and seems to be having fun together just being Blur once again. For instance, on the album’s first single “The Narcissist,” where the protagonist strives to set ego aside for once in favor of the hope that “I won’t fall this time/with Godspeed I’ll heed the signs,” finds a playfulness in the wordplay as Albarn sings “I heard no echo,” only to Coxon repeat the phrase “no echo,” in all seriousness. And as if to drive home the satire, the lead singer adds, “there was distortion everywhere,” and in a clean, crisp harmony echoes the reply, “everywhere.” The subtle touches, and the attention to detail, give the proceedings added depth and lift the whole endeavor up a notch.
And you hear signs of that playful, self-deprecating attitude throughout the album’s 10 tracks. The disc’s opening track, “The Ballad,” is a heart-on-sleeve break-up heartbreaker, with the realization that “can’t you see that when the ballad comes for you/it comes like me,” suggesting an impending sense of mortality. But the embrace of the “Ballad,” as a form seems to offer a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, serving up the conventional piano/orchestration, and lush bed of backing vocals. It’s like a subversive agreement that if we’re going to go there, let’s go all the way.
Then they follow it with album’s one, loud rocker, Coxen’s guitar growling and crunchy, while Albarn confesses “I fucked up,” then acknowledges the obvious: “Every generation has its gilded posers.” Recorded in the late 90’s, listeners would assume it was a snarky attack on Oasis’s Noel Gallagher, and escalation in their war of words, but at this point, it feels almost confessional. It’s followed by the album’s biggest, brightest pop tune, “Barbaric,” Coxen’s guitar sound, crispy and clean, the high energy melodicism hiding the sad reflection, on what has been lost in the ending of a relationship. That tension between the music’s positivity and bounce and the lyric’s darker, insecure world view is suspended throughout the album. While ballads like “Avalon” and “Russian Strings,” hint at Roxy Music’s lush romanticism expressed in strings and horns, while the folky, acoustic turn of “The Everglades” and the experimental piano ballad, “Far Away Island,” recalls David Bowie’s ability to turn inward in moments of reinvention.
It feels natural that the music of Blur continues to age alongside its members, that this mature pop album isn’t an attempt to recapture past glories, or to pretend they’re still vibrant young men filled with piss and vinegar. Albarn and his old friends, returned to the live stage at British festivals this summer, and no doubt they’ll resurrect their biggest hits for their faithful fans, as well they should. But here on this newest collection of material, they’ve collected Brit-pop best-suited for mature men in their 50’s who see “there’s darkness at the door… It’s just something that comes to us all,” as they sing in “Avalon.” Still, “the glass is half full,” which is something to not overlook. And in the anthemic closing number, there’s a built-in concert sing-along closing number, “The Heights,” which suggests over its simple acoustic guitar chording that “seeing through the coma of our lives/something so bright out there, you can’t even see it.” Even if there’s a real possibility that “we’re running out of time,” there’s something more that we can see and experience together. On “The Ballad of Darren,” Albarn and his Blur mates deliver a musical toast to mid-life and all that it represents while offering up some fun songs to be shared in the meantime.
“The Narcissist” / “Barbaric” / “Goodbye Albert”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
Crowded House / Roxy Music / David Bowie
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