REVIEW: Blur – The Ballad of Darren


photo credit: Reuben Bastienne_Lewis

When talking about truly iconic bands, it won’t be long before Blur get a mention. Turning the British music scene on its head with 1993’s, ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ and establishing what would become the blueprint for the, ‘Britpop’ sound in the process. Blur then rose to become a truly household name through their 1995 battle with Oasis.

Now, 30 years since they changed the face of music, they’re back with their first album in 8 years, ‘The Ballad of Darren’.

As opening track, ‘The Ballad’ kicks in it becomes immediately clear that Blur are not here to rest of their laurels and re-hash their trademark sound. Rather the track is slow and tender, with a piano lead in that slowly begins to incorporate guitars creating a beautiful canvas for Albarn’s vocals to paint upon. ‘Russian Strings’ continues this theme, with its immaculate production giving it a real 70’s sound. It’s clear that Blur are more comfortable in their own skin, fully embracing an art-school sound.

This is not to say that the record doesn’t have its rock side, far from it. ‘St Charles Square’ is snotty and aggressive, with Albarn’s opening line of, “I fucked up” being delivered with a snarl that even Johnny Rotten would be jealous of. Furthermore, ‘Barbaric’ takes clear influence from the current crop of indie artists, with the chorus sounding more like Pip Blom or Sports Team than, ‘Girls and Boys’. It’s with this track that we get our first real reminder of just how good Alex James’ is as a bass player, with small but crucial fills that act as hooks for the guitar to wrap itself around.

The albums lead single, ‘The Narcissist’, is perhaps as close as we get to that classic Blur sound that dominated the mid-90’s. It’s poppy and up-beat, with Albarn’s vocals bringing in some of that old-school cockney charm, emphasised by the line, “so many people standing there”, a nod to his, ‘Parklife’ roots, but 30 years on. It’s also the first point in the album whereby guitarist Graham Coxon’s vocals noticeably enter the mix. As they mingle with Albarn’s, you can’t help but smile at the return of this classic pairing.

Closing out the record is, ‘The Heights’ which slows the album down, ending it on a beautifully melancholy note. It opens with a tender acoustic guitar riff and Albarn’s vulnerable vocal delivery, however there’s a swill of electric guitar that rumbles in the background, never letting the listener feel fully at ease. As the track builds and builds to its crescendo, the line, “are we running out of time?” is truly poignant, with the band perhaps hinting at this being one last hurrah. As the album draws to a close, that previously mentioned swill of electric guitar begins to take hold, engulfing the listener in a wall of white noise.

‘The Ballad of Darren’ is nothing short of a triumph. Easily Blur’s best album since their self-titled 1997 record. It’s truly remarkable how easily the band have seemed to reinvent themselves; not content with producing a throw-back record, they have clearly pulled together a near decade’s worth of influences and produced what could, musically at least, be their most polished offering to date.