Blur Seek Light in the Darkness on The Ballad of Darren: Review

It’s been a long eight years since Blur‘s most recent album, The Magic Whip. The world has changed, and so too have Damon Albarn, guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree. But after years of solo and side projects,  The Ballad of Darren finds them once again creating as a full four-piece band.

In our cover story highlighting the group’s journey through The Ballad of Darren, Albarn asserts that it’s “the first legit [Blur] album since 13.” It’s an unsurprising claim given the more heady content of The Magic Whip, and it sets up The Ballad of Darren to be the “return to form” for which fans have been clamoring.

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But while The Ballad of Darren finds a classic Britpop stride that many have come to know and love, there’s a sense of melancholy swimming through each track. Now, Blur have less in common with their former rivals Oasis and more with latter day Arctic Monkeys; the orchestral lounge pop and moody tones of Tranquility Base Hotel + Casino and The Car are only a few degrees away from the contemplative indie found in The Ballad of Darren.

Though he refrains from going into the deep end, The Ballad of Darren is undoubtedly influenced by loss and strife in Albarn’s personal life — separations, the deaths of close friends and collaborators, the pandemic, and a changing world are all acknowledged throughout the album. He ruminates on ghosts and “Many paths I wish I’d taken” on the acoustic number “The Everglades,” his warm baritone full of cracks and croaks that radiate intimacy. He stumbles over existential queries, often asking open-ended questions and wondering if it’s all pointless. He rarely escalates beyond the most comfortable part of his voice, so much so that when he does extend his range, like in the final song, “The Heights,” it feels like all the lights in the building have just turned back on, if only for a moment.

This all points to The Ballad of Darren serving as a bit of a lull, a brief stopover for Albarn to let out some of those middle-aged demons. And yet, it’s still a Blur album, and it’s full of rousing surprises. Second single “St. Charles Square” is an infectious bit of slacker rock, hearkening back to their wandering early works. It’s appropriately stacked with choirs of “Oohs” and “Ahhs,” but they’re offset by Albarn’s occasional yelps and moody narration.

Many songs follow this lopsided pattern. There are plenty of nostalgic guitar lines from Coxon, ranging from serene to lively, that become counterbalanced by something off — usually a crushingly sad line from Albarn. “Barbaric” is the most guitar-forward song on the album, with Coxon letting the blooming lead line pop just enough to keep you waiting for the next one. It’s a festival-ready sing-along track, but Albarn’s lyrics are dripping with sorrow.