Etched in Blur is a mentality still cemented in the 1990s. Their desire to release extra tracks surrounding the main body of work, The Ballad of Darren, is admirable. Bonus tracks, demos and the like are nothing new, nothing special, but the song and dance Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon make of theirs, with Blur and otherwise, is charming. Not so much when novelty songs from Gorillaz’s Cracker Island are the result, but for Blur, the sophistication and maturity of their latest album bleeds over into their extra bells and whistles. There is nowhere better for this marrying of old-school desire to offer that little bit extra and newfound class than Sticks and Stones.
But what could have been for this extra track, with Graham Coxon lending himself to lead vocal duties as he did all those years ago on the blinding Coffee and TV. There is an almost teary approach to this one, a slower piece clunking away under those refreshing lights of reflective processes. Coxon did not have the chance to do so on his seminal work elsewhere this year, the masterclass The Waeve had no room for this softer reflection. But Sticks and Stones has much of that, an abundance of looking back at the highs and lows as Damon Albarn takes a step back, allowing his long-serving Blur bandmate a time to shine. Rightly so, it is as moving a piece as can be expected of a man who penned his autobiography just this year, the recollections still fresh in the mind.
It has an almost frenetic Nick Cave quality to it, the plodding, highly-strung effectiveness of the synths and whistles blowing through Sticks and Stones marks it as a ballad. In time with the theme of The Ballad of Darren but so different to the process Albarn and company planted on it. Perhaps it is the change in singer, but it goes a bit deeper than that. It is all on perspective rather than personnel. Coxon’s darker flourish, the gear shift his personality and guitar playing so often brings to the fold is a welcome one. Understandably kept from the core of The Ballad of Darren but so fitting in its approach. Tales of desiring redemption but not understanding the reason for needing it are sprinkled in with the lush attitudes benefitting the influences now guiding Blur.
Albarn has already spoken of his admiration for current-era Arctic Monkeys, but the slick and almost overwhelming crash of instruments toward the end, the sudden finish to it, has a quality only Coxon can bring. Sticks and Stones starts with a swagger and ends in a heap, an intentionally messy explosion to counteract all those doubts and misgivings. Coxon has always been a talented lyricist, his solo work is more than enough to prove just that, but it is refreshing to hear his voice lead the charge on a Blur track after all those years. Charming and movingly disturbed by their own shadows, Blur enters the inevitable twilight era which eats up lesser songwriters. Sticks and Stones is a benchmark of their quality, and they found it fitting to dump it out of the album cycle, such is the high bar they still set.