There are few living songwriters who embody every creation they put out in the world like Blur’s Damon Albarn. At the second night of the band’s reunion shows at Wembley Stadium earlier this month, the band played their 2012 single ‘Under The Westway’, named after the underpass in west London that was standing a handful of miles away. After its finale, Albarn sobbed. Hard. The emotion of the night and the song – in which he says “paradise is not lost, it is in you” – was plain to see: it was tender and beautiful. The previous night, he said he was playing it “begrudgingly”. Now, he was on his knees.
The Westway has been a looming structure in Albarn’s material – it was first referenced in 1992’s ‘For Tomorrow’, again in 2010 single ‘Fool’s Day’ – and remains amongst their most touching, mournful songs. It wouldn’t sound amiss on the ‘The Ballad of Darren’, the band’s ninth studio album, which deals in similar nostalgia, loss and melancholy. When the band took lead single ‘The Narcissist’ into BBC 6 Music and Steve Lamacq’s show for an early spin, the room was full of tears. It really is that kind of album.
For the past two decades, Blur has been a similarly distant, but meaningful presence in the band’s lives. Each member has kept busy: Damon with Gorillaz, and many, many side-projects; Graham with a solo career and The Waeve; Dave Rowntree in politics; Alex James with cheese. But there’s always a sense of unfinished business with Blur; they’ve never officially split, but each time they re-emerge it’s as if we’re rekindling a long-estranged affair. Two albums in 20 years since 2003’s ‘Think Tank’ – ‘The Ballad of Darren’ and 2015’s ‘The Magic Whip’ – would suggest they feel the same.
Emotion, then, is running high. Damon began writing demos at the end of last year while on tour with Gorillaz and when he presented them to the band, recording happened quickly. When ‘The Narcissist’ was shared back in May, he described it as “an aftershock, reflection and comment on where we find ourselves now”, looking back at the friends he has lost: Bobby Womack, Tony Allen and late tour manager, Craig Duffy and his wife. “Looked in the mirror / So many people standing there”, he sighs in the song’s opening line. It is already up there in the canon of great Blur songs.
Where their last record occasionally tried to reignite the lout of the mid-’90s (lead single ‘Go Out’ fancies a night at the local) on ‘The Ballad…’ the band are muted and contemplative; there are moments of sheer heartbreak in these songs, and in a recent interview, Albarn alluded to the circumstances behind them. ‘The Ballad’ is a devastating opener: “I just looked into my life / And all I saw was that you’re not coming back” he sings in its very first line. On the spritely ‘Barbaric’, he signposts a breakup by name, and says of two subjects that have “lost the feeling that you thought you’d never lose”. And you thought ‘No Distance Left To Run’ was bleak…
Beyond the doom, there’s something resolute and life-affirming in the way this record plays out; you sense the whole momentum of the band moving as a unit, not just pieced together in separate takes like in ‘The Magic Whip’. Highlight ‘Barbaric’ has something of a Gorillaz-whiff to its spritely-ness, and the majesty of ‘Russian Strings’ is low-key but potent. Some of Rowntree’s best moments as a drummer on this record are subtle and electronic, and while James’ basslines are slightly understated, at no point does any composition feel limp; ‘Avalon’ harks back to ‘This Is A Low’ and ‘The Universal’ in all its pomp. It may feel one-note in places, but it’s certainly not forced.
That sense of brotherhood, a bond that looks only to have strengthened over time, is felt often – it gives ‘The Ballad of Darren’ its purpose. The way Albarn and Coxon’s vocals interact on the ‘The Ballad’, two pals bound together since their teens, is heartening: when Albarn sighs “I’ll fall along with you”, and Coxon coos back “we travelled around the world together”, it’s hard not to imagine that they’re talking publicly to each other. On ‘The Heights’, he’s gushing at the amount of love he’s felt from the Blur faithful for 30 years: “I gave a lot of heart, so did you / Standing in the back row, this one’s for you” he sings atop a gentle acoustic strum.
Unlike many of their peers, there has never been a timelessness to a Blur album – that’s a good thing. When you listen to ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ now, you can feel disdain for the culture that surrounded them, or the raw confusion of heartbreak on 1999’s ‘13’; they have a way of transporting you to a precise moment or emotion. It’s why ‘The Ballad of Darren’ is so memorable and touching: you can feel it, everything, in every line sung or note played. Speaking to NME last week, Rowntree says that when they were recording, “everything we tried, worked”, and that “magic was in the air”. It is keenly felt here; may it never fade away.
- Release date: July 21, 2023
- Record label: Parlophone