A dying art is the bonus track, but they are appreciated when the artist remembers they can do it. Blur remembered for The Ballad of Darren, although it feels like a Graham Coxon addition, who did the same with his work earlier this year on The Waeve. Here it is then, two extra tracks from a band who, in their heyday, released them almost constantly. A drip-feed of new progress, a constant whirlpool of songs not good enough to feature in the main event but good enough to warm up or cool down with. The Swan does just that, the latest piece from the Britpop heroes takes listeners back to the roots not just of their sound but of a time when a Vocoder mix was expected, yet still not desired.
Calm synthesisers and a percussion from Dave Rowntree which sees him channel the jazz boom of the 1950s give Blur a tender feel once more. The Ballad of Darren was stuffed full of this inspiration, but The Swan, which is sadly cut from the initial run of tracks, fits in perfectly. Rowntree is the star here, with lush and striking percussion which forms the core of a track obsessed with loss. Damon Albarn croons his way through figuring out what his purpose is, what the purpose of others are and their innermost desires. There is a subtle flow to this one, the delicacies of it equate to those further Glen Campbell aesthetics featuring intermittently throughout the album. Graham Coxon is impactful but nearly invisible on this one, the focus is on the strings and not his guitar.
But even without a clear cut through to shine with, Coxon still manages a Highway 61 Revisited flicker, a Ballad of a Thin Man burst. Albarn takes an account of love lost and flips it over, exuding as much of a positive feel to it as he can. Love burnt up but still hanging on, the reflection taking the perspective of someone needing to heal rather than the other attempting to prise their way back in. The Swan sees those sickly strings come into play yet again but hinted at with some gorgeous, blunt riffs from Coxon in the opening moments, are given a new perspective. Those synths and electronics which breach the opening may be too Gorillaz for some, but Albarn has struggled to keep his spinning plates from crashing together plenty of times before.
His self-reference to taking on the octaves of Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys is a hopeful comparison which just so happens to line up on The Swan. Questioning the real needs and desires of a person from another has never sounded so jaded and well-formed. It all comes together with great sophistication and focus. Albarn has grown as a lyricist over these last few years as someone in touch with his own experiences. Remove the initial shock at The Swan being left off of The Ballad of Darren, regroup and experience. Where The Ballad of Darren may get some stick of being more of the same, it is where Albarn and Coxon can take the lyrics, where Rowntree shines on percussion and where Cheesemaster Alex James continues his solid work as rhythm keeper. Blur is charting through the perfect storm, and extra bits like The Swan are total and affirming.