Erupting like the dormant volcano they were, Blur and their return to the huge stages which stretch across the world have been a major triumph for the band and fans alike. The Ballad comes for them. Damon Albarn explores the calmer side as he did on his recent solo album The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows. Pairing that with the writhing experience underscoring the steely nerve from Graham Coxon and the delicate backing rhythms of Alex James and Dave Rowntree respectively, The Ballad of Darren shoots for the skies and shoulders its way near to the top of Blur’s discography. Reflection and sincerity, clambering through an array of instrumental practices and flows, clearly and cleanly observed by the four-piece, makes for some of their best work in decades.
Collectively or otherwise, the members of Blur outdo themselves and much of what they did together or apart. An almost anxious turn is tipped on its head between The Ballad to St Charles Square, a recognition and acceptance of fury instead of the coy and wobbly introduction. Coxon is the spark for all of this, the madness of St Charles Square and the groaning guitar work underneath, holding it all together as Coxon lashes out at the ghosts which haunt the band. Barbaric is anything but its titular suggestion. Certainly capturing some internal conflict, the fear of resentment to those we hold dear, the feeling which is never lost now gone, and Barbaric mounts an intimate little aside. With its drum machine relics hiding in the background, there is a turn of confidence from Albarn, whose continued lean toward Gorillaz experimentation rubs off here.
Despite being around since the turn of the 1990s, Blur still finds themselves, like Suede, completely lost and in the dark about where they need to be. Rightly so. Nobody needs to find themselves and you cannot do so in ten songs. But they give it a crack and an honest attempt is mounted. Plenty of thick piano beats that guide Blur to pastures new as Arctic Monkeys did with Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, as Pulp did with This is Hardcore. The Ballad of Darren may be in step with the tongue-in-cheek title but the tracks which flow through, the lush and cool Russian Strings to the Glen Campbell-inspired guitar delicacies, it shows growth plain and simple. This is not for all the people or those who live in country houses, this is for Blur and its four members. It is their autobiographical, meditative stance which takes them to a new high. Keep an ear out for Far Away Island and Avalon, a pairing which captures just what Blur wants to do with this new era.
At a time of cash-ins on the nostalgia tour, Blur and Pulp are making the most of it. The latter is guided by LCD Soundsystem’s “shut up and play the hits,” mantra, the former taken by how far they came and how they still pursue those delicate highs. This is what the fans want. A whole new generation who never had the chance to see those Hyde Park highs are given the opportunity and experience they, as well as Blur, were so desperately craving. Blur navigates some of their finest works here, avoiding the chance to give you what you’ve come to expect. The Ballad of Darren is filled with surprises, taking those slower sentiments to heart and running with them. Goodbye Albert and all which follows is nothing short of ridiculously inspired. A jaw-dropping experience which cements Blur not as the strange posh boys of the 1990s but the tender and experienced artists they always were. An album as inspired and responsive as The Ballad of Darren always has that effect.