Album Review: Blur – The Ballad of Darren

[Parlophone; 2023]

Middle age is hard work, as any god-fearing person in a midlife crisis will tell you. Growing older means you observe yourself in different ways, find coping mechanisms that the world leaves you behind, grow tired of the lack of revolutions. All the while ‘the kids’ come up, trampling what your generation built with ignorance and arrogance, pretending they’ve invented things you did yourself, back then, a long long time ago. Well, things could be worse, but they’re also in a static hum of grey days and moping contemporaries. “I bet you had fun in High School”, Protomartyr’s Joe Casey sang earlier this year – yeah, once you turn 40, the prospect of ‘fun’ looks a little dreary, doesn’t it, all back pain and exhaustion.

It’s with this sense of mature frustration that Blur approach their first album in eight years. The Ballad of Darren is as gloomy as its overcast cover, contrasting sky blue water with the colour of a TV set to a dead channel. It’s a self reference, really, with the band logo placement and overall design reflecting the cover of The Great Escape, Blur’s most confused and weakest record.

Yes, their ninth outing is, in a way, looking at a previous work for inspiration: there’s a similarly scattershot feeling to these mid-tempo tracks and their humble experiments, which Blur had mastered long ago on better records. Maybe it’s due to the… VERY short runtime of 36 minutes, divided into only 10 songs, but something seems missing here.

Throughout their career, the quartet have managed to constantly develop with each subsequent release, broadening their interests organically and expanding their sounds based on each previous divergence. Where 2003’s Think Tank explored African and Middle Eastern aesthetics, 2015’s The Magic Whip found pseudo-asian sounds in goofy keyboards and strict string-sections.

That’s a compliment: The Magic Whip was a brilliant comeback, vastly underrated and bafflingly declared as “Blur-by-numbers”. Well… what will those people think of songs from The Ballad of Darren like “Russian Strings”, which could have fit on the latest Arctic Monkeys release? Are they humored by the Parklife B-Side “The Everglades (For Leonard)”? Do they notice that “Far Away Island” is a nod to “Far Out” or have they fallen asleep by then?

I’m being cynical. The Ballad of Darren is a fine album. “St. Charles Square” is a cute rework of David Bowie’s “It’s No Game (Pt. 1)”, and Damon Albarn’s reflections on masculine failures is valid. The somewhat cautious analysis could be that it’s his reaction to the outrage following his Taylor Swift-callout, but it could be exchanged with any fuck-up possible in how it approaches what’s “under the floorboards”. “Barbaric” in turn is swift and clean, enriched by a savoury singalong chorus an a wonderful guitar melody from Graham Coxon. “The Narcissist” builds itself up layer by layer while Albarn recounts his own story of self-betterment, exploding in euphoria as it reaches its climax. “Avalon” is a bit of a cross of “The Universal” and “Country House”, which is least an improvement on the latter. It also features some of the best lyricism of the record, refashioning a breakup in mythic imagery: “What’s the point in painting Avalon / If you can’t bе present when it’s done? / Who’s in the vale again / Picking up the apples of Avalon?” There’s also something charming in the Paul McCartney maximalism of “The Heights”, a bit of a ‘mature’ (so somewhat muted) version “1992”.

Yes, nothing here is bad. Every song is handled with great care and executed with enough panache and charm to satisfy its audience. But is satisfaction enough to propel a decent Blur record to be a good one? On opening track “The Ballad”, Albarn muses “I just looked into my life / And all I saw was that you’re not coming back / Oh, can’t you see when the ballad comes for you / It comes like me?” This idea of the ‘ballad’, of the somewhat calm and muted, of course stands for older age and melancholy and ponderousness, while the titular “Darren” is a homonym for “Damon”, so it’s all too clear, really: this is Albarn at his most introspective and humble, attempting to find grace in small and measured things. Breakups and fuck-ups. “I’m so sleepy.” And indeed, the band often sounds a little tired, a little too comfortable, kicking it back by the open fire with with some hot cocoa and a nice book. At one point, all the ballads here start to sound similar, all the hits are familiar three spins in, and the words make me smile, but rarely shudder.

I’ve seen writers argue that Blur are the modern equivalent to The Beatles, developing from the early pop into a perfect distillation of Britpop to striking avant-garde and all the way to non-English language influenced pop experimentation. If we take this at face value, then The Ballad of Darren is their equivalent to Let It Be, a “back to the roots”, a “no bullshit” album from four men who want to reconquer their love for music and each other, all the while feeling a little older than before.

And this is where the record finds itself in a bit of a dead end: it’s a memorial of a great band, strangely reflective of their weakest era and mostly lacking surprises. It’s pretty in its elegiac waltzing and occasional moment of art-school abrasiveness (which, however, remains referential of greater works and never as innovative as the band’s self-titled / Yellow Album), but it’s a bit parallel to Wilco’s The Album and Schmilco, which both fell by the wayside due to their inherent niceness. Yes, The Ballad of Darren is Dad Rock. Fairly enjoyable Dad Rock, true, and still a record hundreds of bands can only dream of making, but one that would likely fall by the wayside if anyone else had made it. Is this bad? Not really, and if anything, it proves that Blur can transition gracefully into old age. I just wish their backs wouldn’t hurt so much.