As one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of the year (if not the decade) so far, it's no wonder that Blur's The Ballad of Darren has become quite a talking point since its release last week. The band's first record since The Magic Whip in 2015 and coming off the back of a reunion tour, it's a melancholic look to middle age wrapped up in the polished melodies Blur are known for, but is it any good? Two very good friends of Applestump, Stephen Taylor and Pete Stacey, have been kind enough to share their thoughts:
I’ve never been one who is truly loyal to a band, not really. Obsessive spells, a list of all-time greats, a mellowing in my thirties, absolutely - but true loyalty? Usually, once a band is no longer capable of squeezing out every last drop of cultural energy before finding themselves elbow deep in domestic chores (or whatever the equivalent of that was for Stevie Wonder), I’m on my way without so much as a farewell nod. So before you might be tempted to have a scan of what a live-and die South-Cheshire bloke thinks about Blur’s record, The Ballad of Darren, I’ll say it now - when older bands decide to keep the wheel turning, I don’t normally tune in.
The Ballad of Darren, though, I liked. It felt like a compete record that has to be consumed in one hit and will reward you for the investment, words coming from someone was eight or nine years too young for Blur to truly soundtrack their 90’s. What I liked most of all about the record was how bloody depressing it all was, but also how it set me up for it:
‘I just looked into my life and all I saw was that you’re not coming back.’
‘We have lost the feeling that we thought we’d never lose. It is barbaric.’
‘I’m cut to pieces and I am dancing alone with the moon.’
He’s not in great shape is he, old Damon. The music matches the tone, right from the opening seconds of The Ballad. Then, Blur mess with our heads and chuck out St. Charles Square, a song built on a chug, bolstered by wails and a meandering riff line. It even manages to throw an ‘Oiiii!’ In there, for old time’s sake, but it all sounds gloriously zapped of energy and a suggestion that ‘we might not get back to ourselves at all’.
Barbaric, possibly the best song on the record from a first listen is racked with self-doubt, disappointment and a closing of the blinds. At this point, you realise that things are only pointing in one direction for the rest of the record but those three openers are so good that you feel ready to head into the abyss with them and hear them out. Only The Narcissist tries to keep it’s chin up - an ideal early single to signal the return of the band, but in the context of the record as a whole, it’s not fooling us. The whole album felt like it was about endings. Endings of all different kinds across the wide spectrum of middle-aged life and I hope that when you listen to it, they might jump out at you and give you plenty to think about, as they did for me.
Within the last month, Blur have played Wembley over two consecutive nights, actively serving as the main promotional campaign for what can only be described as their most terrifyingly miserable record. They’ve had Paul Weller opening for them, playing That’s Entertainment, Shout to the Top, Sunflower and Hung Up at a place that’s called Wembley Stadium. As a result of the gigs, Sleaford Mods, Self Esteem and Steve ‘interesting’ Davies have now all played Wembley, let that one sink in.
You have to admire the outrageous ambition of it all, yet it’s not particularly being seen as a major cultural moment by anyone other than those that were lucky enough to be able to splash out and attend, why? Blur played a couple of intense sweatbox gigs to warm them up for Wembley, yet neither they, nor the majority of their fairly diverse line-up for their stadium shows played Glastonbury, but a microwaved version of Guns ’n’ Roses did. Now, I’m not one to be able to work out exactly what is being said by all of this (and if you’re still following me on this thread, I’m concerned for you) but I’m not fool enough to think that it means nothing.
Yet, it’s telling that the final song on the record, ‘The Heights’ fades into an unravelling of…well, seemingly everything. The day-glo chunky plastic logo that was Blur at their lad-mag, afternoon tea loving ’Parklife’ best melts into nothingness, making for a genuine artistic statement that no band of the 60’s old guard that Blur replaced in the 90’s was brave enough to muster at the same point in their careers. You can pop The Smile into that comment too, whilst we’re here but would you say the same for the Gallaghers? Does the answer even matter? Was it actually always this way in the 90’s and I just didn’t notice, because I was ten? Albarn gets the last word:
‘There’s nothing in the end but dust. Turn the music up. I’m hitting the hard stuff.’
If you were near a radio for the first play of The Narcissist, the latest comeback single from Blur, a couple of months ago on Steve Lamacq’s 6music show you would be left in no doubt how much this band mean to people, and how great it is to have Blur back. Damon, Graham, Alex and Dave were all in the studio together with Steve and you could hear the emotion in everyone’s voices during the interview, you could hear how happy the band were to be back together, and what really got me was the vulnerability and emotion in Lamacq’s voice when he proclaimed live to the band and the nation “I’ve missed you”. That moment summed up how we all felt, they are a band that we have grown up with, a band that we have gone from being teenagers to middle aged with, a band who have soundtracked so many moments in our lives, been there through the highs and the lows are still together. It is a friendship united by music and giving us a new album that could be argued is one of their best.
The Ballad opens the album and instantly sets the scene for The Ballad of Darren. This is an emotional album about love, loss, friendship, reflections of the past, thinking towards the future and reaching a stage in life where you wonder what is to come. The Ballad is a beautiful, tender, uplifting song that will certainly stir emotions within and leave you with a warm and comforting feeling. I love the way Damon and Graham's vocals combine, it sounds as though they are singing to each other, reflecting on their life together and the lifelong friendship they have “I fell in love with you / I met you at an early show / You fall, I’ll fall along with you / We travelled ‘round the world together”.
St Charles Square is such a great song that will make you want to scream, sing and jump around. Lyrically there is so much to pick apart here, it seems as though Damon is reflecting and apologising for some of the excess of the Brit Pop era, “Every generation has its gilded posers”. There is also a line in the song that sees Damon thinking about ghosts of the past, things that are just kept out of sight waiting to return at some stage “Cause there’s something down here / And its living under the floorboards”. Barbaric is one of the greatest pop songs of the year, the infectious melodies and choruses are what pop music is all about. This song is one that will instantly grab your attention and is one that will be with us for the rest of our lives. Lyrically Damon is looking back on friendships, relationships or possibly a love of doing something that has been lost “We have lost the feelings that we thought we’d never lose / Now where are we going?"
Hopefully the Ballad of Darren will introduce Blur to a generation of new fans, but there is no doubt there will be an army of fans listening to this album who have grown up with this band. Many of us will be at the stage of life where we have lost people, and Russian Strings seems to capture that feeling with raw and honest emotions “Where are you now / Where are you now / Are you coming back to us / Are you online / Are you contactable?”. Those emotions continue with the tearjerker that is The Everglades (For Leonard), the gentle guitar playing, the whimsical melodies and the vocals of Damon all combine to leave us crying our eyes out as Damon sings “Many ghosts alive in my mind / Many paths I wish I’d taken”.
Now for The Narcissist, the song that launched this latest comeback, the song that reminded us that Blur are one of the greatest bands that has ever lived. They are still one of our most important bands, they are a band that will be with us until the end of days. Everything about this song is perfect, it hits you in an instant, then the more you listen to it the more you realise that this is a pop song that makes the world a far better place. The Narcissist also contains one of the greatest lyrics ever written “Looked in the mirror / So many people standing there”, this conjures up images of looking into a mirror and seeing people who are no longer with us, people that have been with us at different stages of our lives, meant so much to us and are sadly no longer with us. Damon did warn us this was an emotional album.
Goodbye Albert is a sweet song that allows you to drift away into an alternative universe. Far Away Island continues with that theme of loneliness, being on an island drifting away from the rest of the world. Thinking about friends, relationships and looking for ways to reconnect. One of the overriding things that I take from this song is contentment, “I know you think I must be lost now / But I’m not anymore”. Avalon is classic Blur, there is no other band that could have recorded a song like this. The arrangements are fantastic, the gentle verses before the instant shift to a chorus that will give you an extra skip in your step. The Heights closes the album with harmonies, guitars, uplifting vocals and harmonies, drums and bass holding everything together which is often the case with Blur. Sometimes it is easy to forget the importance of Alex and Dave to the band, even during this review I have not mentioned them much but throughout the album everything is held together like glue by Alex and Dave. The Heights comes to a climatic ending with the guitars that leave us wanting more.
As Lamacq said we really have missed this band. It is so great to have Blur back, and not just back for the sake of it. Blur have always been about creativity, and will only be together if they have something to create and share with the world. What they have done with Ballad of Darren is give the world a timeless album, and one we will enjoy for the rest of our time on this earth.