When I heard that Blur had released their new album The Ballad of Darren this July, I did not rush to listen to it. Perhaps understandably, I thought they would have ‘lost’ something of what they were, or would be trying to recreate something that was lost to the chaos of the nineties. But eventually, after seeing it had been positively received, I wanted to see if it was any good. And I found that the band had not ‘lost’ anything, but gained an awful lot, in this reincarnation of, and reflection on, Britpop.
Lead singer and frontman, Damon Albarn, described the album as a “reflection and comment on where we find ourselves now.” With guitarist Graham Coxon adding that with age there comes the necessity of what they play being “loaded” with the “right emotion and intention.” The album’s frankly odd title, as if a love song by a man-in-the-corner-shop figure, is a reference to the band’s former bodyguard. Albarn has also commented mysteriously that “Darren is many people.” The album has ten tracks, starting with ‘The Ballad’, and ending with ‘The Heights’. There’s an evolution as you go through the songs, ‘The Ballad’ talking of “falling” together, and then in ‘The Narcissist’ that they will not “fall this time”. Likewise, in ‘The Ballad’, “falling in love” at “an early show”, moves forward to “standing in the front row” one day in the final track, ‘The Heights’.
Yet ‘Avalon’ seems to be the place of ultimate and almost meta reflection; “What's the point in painting Avalon / If you can't be present when it's done?”. There is an interesting contrast of romance and realism in this one too - the idea of Avalon side by side with the theme of overdosing, talking of ‘something that comes to us all’. ‘The Heights’ leaves us with ambivalence, asking if we are “running out of time”, but perhaps giving us an answer, in that “you can only be it”. The album fades out with its haunting vocals leading to a cacophony of white noise, into oblivion. Or alternatively, signalling that this is no ending at all, but a new beginning.
Albarn’s voice stands out, though all the layers of the songs are essential and wonderfully produced, as what is truly great. I think just his voice, with everything else stripped away, would still be great. Because of this, their new sound at times is minimal, particularly in ‘The Heights’. Much like George Harrison’s all-knowingness in All Things Must Pass, it is this bold voice that shines through, supported by the perfectly matched layers behind it. Blur have kept their pop sound, but gained this new, mature voice which overshadows it - a meaning created just in their return as old timers onto a scene where they were, and I would now argue still are, so influential. There is something so simple in this exposure of age, yet so profound. They are not hiding from an unavoidable evolution in a different part of life, like some greats have done with countless ‘Farewell’ tours, but embracing it. It is a voice that shows age, while telling us of a determination to transcend time.
The striking cover, of a singular person swimming in electric blue when the world around them has become a foreboding grey, seems to match the sound. The photograph is of an outdoor pool in Scotland, and there are stories about the pool containing sharks washed in by the sea. This seems fitting, the band’s music swimming with uncomfortable truths. Something bright and bold to be found amongst the darkness that life offers up. Blur are not in their carefree youth anymore, but their music is only affected by this in impactful ways, leading them to produce something deeply personal and at the same time universal. They have created a body of work that shows this retaining of youthful vigour, yet bold admission of age. They are not reborn, trying to be something they can never be again, but something of what was then revived and what they are now - mellowed and reflective. There seems to be clarity to be found in confusion; nostalgia without regression. Simply, showing that there is something to be gained in having no choice but to not be those people anymore - you don’t have to be one thing forever.
‘The Ballad’ reminded me of David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, where he gave his defiant, Irish goodbye through the raw nature of his older voice. For instance, when we hear purely just his heavy, focused intakes of breath on ‘Tis a Pity, She Was a Whore’. But for me, the most direct comparison is between ‘The Ballad’ and Bowie’s ‘Lazarus’, both at times seeming truly enraged, letting their voices go far. The result is defiant yet melancholic, their own ways of raging “against the dying of the light.” ‘The Ballad’ is “coming for” the speaker, much like Bowie’s nightmarish ‘Button Eyes’ character in the music video for ‘Lazarus’. Both seem to be the artist’s admission of their own fallibility. This aged, yet ageless, voice is like something from T. S. Eliot - one of Bowie’s idols. Yet there is strength to be heard in this admission of weakness, as their quiet laments demand to be heard. This existentialist motif of ageing is almost Shakespearean, Lear blaming himself as an old fool.
‘Barbaric’, encapsulating this blend of reflective pop, reminded me again of a burdened, yet breaking free, Bowie in its lyrics. The question of “I have lost the feeling that I thought I'd never lose / Now where am I going?” is repeated throughout. Possibly inspired by the late-period Bowie ambiguity of his earlier Berlin days in ‘Where Are We Now?’ This calm reflection of the album also seems to be a successor of Pink Floyd’s musings in ‘Time’: “The sun is the same in a relative way / But you’re older”. And the use of strings, for instance, in ‘The Ballad’, ‘The Heights’ and ‘Barbaric’, layered with a guitar riff, is reminiscent of mid-to late Beatles arrangements by George Martin.
This idea of the mature artist seems to create something almost mythical. The motif of the ballad adds to this romance, as Albarn sings about searching for a set of eyes that can’t be found in “this midnight parade”, talk of “solstice” and “white horses”. It tells a simple but often disbelieved truth; that things can get better with age. There is knowledge to be gained in a loss of youth, through fear, and the ability to look back. Albarn’s voice is powerful, often as it is echoing, as if shouting at nothing in a vast space, and eerily being shouted back at. As he sings that the “words” are “hitting” him in ‘The Ballad’, his voice seems to reach out, trying to articulate this feeling of attack. And again, admitting, his voice almost breaking, that he knows he “can't change the times”; his voice more than equals the magnitude of emotion he is describing.
‘St. Charles Square’ is perhaps the most like nineties Blur there is here, like any anarchic rock ballad of theirs. The guitar call and response beginning the song especially, with Damon Albarn swapping the haunting vocals for ones made youthful with heavy reverb. This seems inspired by one of their successors, Arctic Monkeys, heavy guitar on songs like ‘When the Sun Goes Down’. This unique balance of thoughtful pop numbers and straight rock created, for me, a perfect album. The past and the present carry the band into the future. They are echoes of their former selves, in the sense that they still retain the Blur we know.
I think there’s also an important point to be made about this vulnerability in their music. Caitlin Moran, in her newest book What About Men?, discusses how the patriarchy has negatively impacted men’s lives as much as it has women’s. In part, because of it resulting in a lack of men talking about their feelings, or talking at all. Moran pointedly refers to Oasis lyrics as an example of this reality of emotional suppression. Think of, “There are many things that I would like to say to you / But I don't know how”, and the frustration and angst in their lyrics as young men. And so I think what Blur, a band known for their success during their careless youth, have done here by admitting they do, in fact, have cares, is very powerful.
The album is simply just great to listen to, in the background, or immersed in its richness. It is a testament to the lasting legacy of Britpop. They were not just some boys with imperfect voices messing about, but were always actually, more than singing, saying something. Boys who turned out to be these great artists, hiding behind the baggy shirts or cocky front. Pulp toured earlier this year, with Jarvis Cocker publishing his own intimate reflections in Good Pop, Bad Pop, both Gallagher’s are still going, and now Blur are back. But this time there is no façade or familiarity of Britpop to hide behind. Instead, they are inevitably judged against their old selves. And their music alone seems to prove to have always been enough, to outlive the phenomenon.
All the white noise that surrounded the band in their heyday has gone. And it seems there is more to be discovered in their music as they are left alone with themselves. We hear Blur just as they are, their sound now fully formed. The unexpected grace of their music comes to the fore, and we are left with a new and yet eternal phase of life - middle aged men, guitars, and some haunting but hopeful truths.