When news of the big Blur reunion album The Ballad of Darren emerged, you surely had the same excited thought I did:
What does Liam Gallagher have to say about all of this?
“Oo? Fookin’ Blur? You wanna know wot I fink about Dermot Oblong an’ ‘is crew of fookin’ stoodents? Sounds like indie shit played by toff kids in short pants ‘oo’ve never had a bird in their lives. They don’t keep me awake at night, but it’s about as sexy and dangerous as porridge, and they can fooking have it mate.” *
The Oasis singer and his brother Noel memorably feuded with singer Damon Albarn and the rest of rival Blur in a mystical medieval land known as The 1990s. Too young to remember? The Great BritPop Feud that animated the UK featured the two biggest bands in the land conspiring to release their singles on the same day and openly competing for #1 cock-of-the-walk status. Which was somewhat amusing, as in the long run, only one band seemed to be swingin’ ‘em, slagging the supposedly posh Blur at every turn… while their targets seemed to shrug their supposedly public-school shoulders and cross the street whenever Liam and Noel came lurching out of the boozer. Meaning Oasis were, in a sense, in an extended punch-up with… Oasis. Which, of course, makes perfect sense when you recall that Noel once swung a cricket bat at his brother’s head.
Not that that wasn’t fun, back when rock’n’roll still had swagger and media headlines. And as Blur (singer Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree) return with their 9th album, they pose the question: in 2023, what is the profile of a rock band—even one as arty as Blur—and what is its purchase on the cultural imagination and attention span?
If The Ballad of Darren makes an argument, it is that there is a cohesive artistic unity that simply can’t be matched by much of the undeniably compelling yet hit-by-committee smashes on the RnB or dance-pop charts. Eight years after The Magic Whip (2015), Blur’s last UK chart-topper, Albarn told a journalist that he wrote demos for the album while touring with Gorillaz—his other massive “side-line” career. Great story: “I recorded in a lot of conference rooms but I did actually have a wonderful moment in Montreal,” said Albarn. “Opposite my [hotel] room was this fantastic mural of Leonard Cohen.”
Well, that’ll tend to inspire. After hearing the demos, the band recorded together in the studio, which explains the depth of the soundcraft here. This is not an album guitarist Coxon could have whipped up from studio jams. And for a band whose (arguably) biggest hit, “Song 2”, was a great rock-banger gimmick that rattles the rafters of sports arenas to this day, there is nothing contrived or stunty about The Ballad of Darren. This is no desperate bid for stadium relevance with the songs out-herniating one another in a Cage Match to clamber onto the top rope of the charts. This is not late-period U2. This is wreathed in a different kind of confidence.
First track, “The Ballad”, sets the tone, an expansive, dreamy… well, ballad, that opens the album. Bookended in tone by “Russian Strings”, which shares a similar elegiac mood, you can imagine David Bowie sitting on a cloud, listening and nodding approvingly. “Barbaric” is a jaunty, percolating throwback to the band’s early days, while “The Everglades (For Leonard)” is likely the song inspired by the mural, and its key lines—“And we’re not giving in / We’re not gonna shy away / We’re growing tall with the pain”—have a fittingly mature ache to go with Coxon’s spare fingerpicking.
Which is when you recognize the undefined tug at the heart of this melodically ambitious, yet reflective album—even in its most rocklike songs. “St. Charles Square” pulses with certainty, with Coxon and Albarn erecting a late-period Bowiesque grinder, and further proof that Coxon may be the most understated, underrated guitar whiz of his generation. Lead single “The Narcissist” is something else: a summer guitar surge. Not a beachy, beer-n-barbecue surge, mind you, but the collision of yet another reflective, melancholy Albarn vocal and cheeky call-and-response with Coxon’s guitar arcing ever higher, reaching for the Big Riff and the undeniable art-rock chorus of the year (not that there’s really any competition), elevating it as one of the band’s best and most compelling songs. Something about knowing yourself. Or not.
The poet Charles Bukowski once memorably counseled “Don’t try.” Or, in other words, do what you do, in the time required, without overreaching. Throughout The Ballad of Darren (which is named for the band’s bodyguard), Blur showcase a mature melancholy twinned with a clean experimentalism, a sense of—not ease, but the confident questioning of a band that knows who they are. After wandering assuredly through the hall of mirrors of their own sound, “The Heights” is a fitting closer, initially sounding like an afterthought that will grow into something memorable. Blur have already used the album’s release to play the two biggest shows of their lives, for 180,000 (!) over two nights at Wembley Stadium earlier in July. And who knows: The Ballad of Darren might be just the trick to piss off the Gallaghers enough to reassemble Oasis. Let the Tabloid Cage Match begin!
*No, not an actual Liam review. Liam did not write that. But he could have.