Photo Credit: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis
Long-running, off-and-on multi-platinum (in the U.K.) London Britpop band Blur returns with their first album of all-new material in eight years. Despite the title, The Ballad of Darren is not a concept album (longtime frontman Damon Albarn more than takes care of that approach with his other major project, the Gorillaz). However, it is a return to form for Blur – at least to a respectable degree – though that particular form might not be as perfectly thought-out as on much of their earlier work.
“Darren” in case anyone is wondering is the name of a former band employee whom Blur chose to honor by making him part of the title. However, it’s a “ballad” which is far more telling, as slow and mid-tempo songs do largely dominate the record. This is obvious from the opening cut, which is, um, also titled simply “The Ballad.” The multi-layered track definitely qualifies as trademark Blur, boasting not just a major Beatles influence but also shades of Coldplay in addition to a well-placed progressive rock hook.
The influence of the Beatles (nothing new for Blur or Britpop in general) can definitely be heard throughout Darren, such as on the quasi-psychedelic “Goodbye Albert,” which also employs some sort of quirky hard-to-identify instrument as well (we’re guessing either kazoo or slide whistle), as well as yet another ballad, “Far Away Island.” The possible influence of Paul McCartney specifically can also be heard on tracks such as “Russian Strings” in addition to “Everglades,” an acoustic ballad that then gives way to a string section (a la “Yesterday”).
Lest any listeners (particularly those brought up on early Blur hits like “Girls & Boys” and “Song 2”) make the premature assumption that the band has gone completely soft, the group serves up a notable raw-sounding rocker in “St. Charles Square,” and that’s immediately followed by the ironically-titled “Barbaric,” which is in fact the most fun, hooky uptempo song on the album. It’s also probably not a coincidence that “Avalon” shares a name with Roxy Music’s last studio album, as that same punk/prog sound is present.
The Ballad of Darren winds down with the album’s most oddly-titled track, “The Rabbi,” another fun uptempo one on which Damon Albarn employs a sleepy talk-sing vocal while delivering lyrics like, “Now who’s going to be tomorrow’s heroes // When the system grinds // To an unseemly halt?” Couple that with a few of the words from “St. Charles Square” (I f*cked up // I’m not the first to do it”) and one might wonder if Albarn and company (still the classic line-up, to their credit) are subtly contemplating whether they can remain relevant in a post-pandemic music world (particularly given Blur’s infrequent Halley’s Comet-like release of new music in the twenty-first century).
In regards to the smaller picture, The Ballad of Darren does sadly seem to lack a single track destined to become a Blur classic. With many of their former Britpop peers – most notably Oasis and the Verve – long gone and unlikely to return anytime soon, Blur carry the torch mostly alone for a particular time and period of British rock and honestly, it’s difficult to hear that their passion for doing so is not anywhere close to what it once was. However, enough does remain to create an enjoyable if not utterly remarkable batch of songs. The Ballad of Darren is just that.