Soon after booking the biggest concerts of their lives at Wembley Stadium, Damon Albarn played his Blur bandmates the demos for a prospective reunion LP. It was an easy sell: The Ballad of Darren would become the prettiest and tightest of their nine albums, elegantly arranged with lush harmonies, baroque flourishes, and a splurge of 1990s cosplay. They opened an early run of reunion sets with “St. Charles Square,” a new song that strides into the boardroom and slaps the whiteboard with an irresistible pitch: This is the Blur you really remember, in all their delinquent glory.
You can compulsively play “St. Charles Square”—a doghouse blues brawler with a throwback “Oiiii!” and nostalgic squeals of fretboard skidding—10 or 20 times, perhaps still waiting for a proper chorus but so very pleased they are back, being Blur. Along with Pulp’s latest reunion dates, Blur’s two sold-out Wembley shows received raves from critics who made their names in the heyday of ’90s music press. For better or worse, Britpop and Blur were back on the agenda.
The Blur that is both revered and reviled for its class-coded caricature of humdrum English life was immortalized in the early ’90s. Middle-class Essex boy Albarn—dropping pull quotes at such a clip he sometimes lost track of whether he had a Cockney accent—swanned into the grunge years denouncing rock as “ornamented and cliquey” and claiming to prefer “the vagueness of pop, its lack of any real message.” Giddy magazine editors sidelined jungle and drum’n’bass coverage and fired out resources to arm these insouciant art school fops to storm the charts and daytime radio.
Everything changed in 1997. Princess Diana died and Blur got into Pavement. Neoliberal centrist Tony Blair swept into government and alienated everyone to his left, starting with the Cool Britannia artists who had piggybacked him into power. “Britpop is dead,” announced a derisory column by journalist Caitlin Moran, who nonetheless tweeted from Wembley last month, “Oh Blur. For thirty years, you’ve been the best.” The Blur who survived that reckoning—who clawed themselves out of Britpop’s nadir—are emblems of the long ’90s: the decade that calcified the cultural and political imagination of the London media class.
Albarn has now completed the journey from celebrity hell-raiser to heroin user to yoga guy. His ever-renewable guises conceal his status as the antsiest man in pop: Since Blur’s 2015 LP The Magic Whip, he has released four albums with the endlessly scalable Gorillaz and three more with other projects; he also composed an Alice in Wonderland musical, conceived an opera mixing “Goethe with club music,” and tried to develop a Gorillaz movie for Netflix. He was made a local king in Mali. Like many former addicts, he is on the run from inertia. Blur’s fourth act was always coming for him.
The Ballad of Darren’s title playfully honors Blur’s security guard and resident everyman Darren “Smoggy” Evans—but also riffs on the more melodramatic Ballad of Damon, suggests Albarn. That implied title aligns with the romantic split that has plunged Albarn, or at least his narrators, into mortal reflection. Comeback single “The Narcissist” surveys Blur’s history while reckoning with their legacy of addiction: Albarn’s call-and-response with Graham Coxon suggests fraternal sympathy with the guitarist’s own destructive alcoholism. Across the record, Albarn describes heartbreak and chemical temptations while the band drifts along in a crystalline reverie, insulated by James Ford’s double-glazed production. After hitting their anthemic cues, both “The Narcissist” and closer “The Heights” climax with guitar noise that threatens, or promises, annihilation.
Albarn makes a show of tearing himself open, yet stretches so far to “transcend” autobiography, as he puts it, that the guts drop out. Could “Barbaric”—a lackadaisical breakup anthem with a Johnny Marr-style riff and a chorus about “barbaric” disunity—in fact allude to political polarization? The heartbreak songs studiously maintain plausible deniability. Albarn invokes current affairs and tiptoes around rich man’s self-pity as if tormented by visions of cynical hit pieces: “Reunited in Their 50s, Blur Rewrite ‘Country House’ From the Homeowner’s Perspective,” and so on.
He invites us along when he gets in the storytelling zone: We see the “basement flat with window bars” in “St. Charles Square,” hear the “balalaikas and singing” in “Russian Strings” (a song about Putin’s “senile autocracy,” says Albarn). Highlight “The Ballad” poignantly links breakups with mortality to the tune of Think Tank on antidepressants. But in lovely songs like “The Everglades,” the man so proud to write his own lyrics can summon only vague “paths I wish I’d taken” and “times I thought I’d break.” There is an irony to these platitudes, implied in drummer Dave Rowntree’s admission this January: “The sneering songs we wrote about old people when we were in our 20s are now aimed at us…. I remember thinking at the time, these people don’t know anything. They don’t even know they’re alive!”
Snarky anthems like “End of a Century” were always alive with the latent fear we might yet become their dowdy, domesticated subjects. The reunion hyperbole betrays those songs’ lasting sting for some—a hardened anxiety that things can only get worse, that life peaked back in the day. The Ballad of Darren pegs that melancholy to middle-aged turbulence, but its gentility and concision displace Blur hallmarks that would more forcefully evoke a man’s unraveling: Coxon’s trapdoor drops, blunt sharps, screwball blues; Albarn’s riptide swims into hypnagogia and alien genres. Albarn plays the part of heartbroken confessor, but these meticulously polished songs conjure something more real than anguish: the dulling of losses, the warm aura of midlife decline, and the fading belief, with advancing years, that crisis serves to raise the curtain on your next act.
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