The Ballad of Darren

The Ballad of Darren

Blur’s first record since 2015’s The Magic Whip arrived in the afterglow of triumph, two weeks after a pair of joyful reunion shows at Wembley Stadium. However, celebration isn’t a dominant flavour of The Ballad of Darren. Instead, the album asks questions that tend to nag at you more firmly in middle age: Where are we now? What’s left? Who have I become? The result is a record marked by loss and heartbreak. “I’m sad,” Damon Albarn tells Apple Music’s Matt Wilkinson. “I’m officially a sad 55-year-old. It’s OK being sad. It’s almost impossible not to have some sadness in your life by the age of 55. If you’ve managed to get to 55—I can only speak because that’s as far as I’ve managed to get—and not had any sadness in your life, you’ve had a blessed, charmed life.” The songs were initially conceived by Albarn as he toured with Gorillaz during the autumn of 2022, before Blur brought them to life at Albarn’s studios in London and Devon in early 2023. Guitarist Graham Coxon, bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree add to the visceral tug of Albarn’s words and music with invention and nuance. On “St. Charles Square”, where the singer sits alone in a basement flat, suffering consequences and spooked by regrets, temptations and ghosts from his past, Coxon’s guitar gasps with anguish and shivers with anxiety. “That became our working relationship,” says Coxon. “I had to glean from whatever lyrics might be there, or just the melody, or just the chord sequences, what this is going to be—to try to focus that emotional drive, try and do it with guitars.” To hear Coxon, James and Rowntree join Albarn, one by one, in the relatively optimistic rhythms of closer “The Heights” is to sense a band rejuvenated by each other’s presence. “It was potentially quite daunting making another record at this stage of your career,” says James. “But, actually, from the very first morning, it was just effortless, joyous, weightless. The very first time we ever worked together, the four of us in a room, we wrote a song that we still play today [‘She’s So High’]. It was there instantly. And then we spent years doing it for hours every day. Like, 15 years doing nothing else, and we’ve continued to dip back in and out of it. That’s an incredibly precious thing we’ve got.” Blur’s own bond may be healthy but The Ballad of Darren carries a heavy sense of dropped connections. On the sleepy, piano-led “Russian Strings”, Albarn’s in Belgrade asking, “Where are you now?/Are you coming back to us?/Are you online?/Are you contactable again?” before wondering, “Why don’t you talk to me anymore?” against the electro pulses and lopsided waltz of “Goodbye Albert”. The heartbreak is most plain on “Barbaric”, where the shock and uncertainty of separation pierces Coxon’s pretty jangle: “We have lost the feeling that we thought we’d never lose/It is barbaric, darling”. As intimate as that feels, there’s usually enough ambiguity to Albarn’s reflections to encourage your own interpretations. “That’s why I kind of enjoy writing lyrics,” he says. “It’s to sort of give them enough space to mean different things to people.” On “The Heights”, there’s a sense that some connections can be re-established, perhaps in another time, place or dimension. Here, at the end, Albarn sings, “I’ll see you in the heights one day/I’ll get there too/I’ll be standing in the front row/Next to you”—placing us at a gig, just as opener “The Ballad” did with the Coxon’s line “I met you at an early show”. The song reaches a discordant finale of strobing guitars that stops sharply after a few seconds, leaving you in silence. It’s a feeling of being ejected from something compelling and intense. “I think these songs, they start with almost an innocence,” says Coxon. “There’s sort of an obliteration of these characters that I liken to writers like Paul Auster, where these characters are put through life, like we all are put through life, and are sort of spat out. So the difference between the gig at the beginning and that front row at the end is very different—the taste and the feeling of where that character is is so different. It’s almost like spirit, it’s not like an innocent young person anymore. And that’s something about the journey of the album.”

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