The Ballad of Darren is a Stirring, Self-Indulgent Outing For Blur

The quartet’s ninth studio album is a diaristic take on the difficulties of being an aging rockstar

Music Reviews Blur
The Ballad of Darren is a Stirring, Self-Indulgent Outing For Blur

Blur floated the idea of a ninth studio album as they prepared for a sold-out string of concerts this summer. They had been on hold for years, and the cyclicality of their young careers had left them exhausted and bored. A new record would have to project that—and encapsulate the maturation they’d undergone and the reasons they’d left in the first place. Blur had scaled this impossible, claustrophobic mountain of ‘90s Britpop fame, and it was time to go back to the top and make sure their flag still stood upright.

The Ballad of Darren announces its reflective nature from the get-go: The namesake whose ballad we are regaled with is Darren “Smoggy” Evans, a former bodyguard for Blur who currently works for frontman Damon Albarn. It’s fitting, as The Ballad of Darren feels as watchful and roving as its title suggests—but not in a way that presents itself with much fuss. It’s a polished, even-keeled tome on the woes of a middle-aged rockstar, replete with melancholic reflections on Albarn’s internal workings and shipwrecked relationships The record is cozy, indulgent and trustfully sincere; an open-hearted, diaristic description of all the ways things get shitty when you’ve been in the spotlight since you were 21. It’s is a stately, tall meditation on that unmistakable nihilism that leeches into the bloodstreams of our old favorites, relentlessly hounding them as they fade from youthful glory into the monotonous, midlife version parodied everywhere. Standout lead single “The Narcissist” is a defeated invective against the mental effects of the industry; “Barbaric” drips quietly and relentlessly, with the sort of biting weariness that seems to plague anyone who’s ever “had it all.” It’s stirring to hear, a collection of moping lyrics and dark-tinged guitar riffs which would fit seamlessly behind a BoJack Horseman monologue.

The LP also indulges readily in Albarn’s personal romantic triumphs and faults, a topic which, while cheesy at times, is any moody rockstar’s bread and butter—and for good reason. The lyrics on “Russian Strings,” “The Ballad” and “Far Away Island” are eloquent and poignant—you get the idea Albarn could write this stuff in his sleep. Crystalline production and pointedly simple instrumentation carry these familiar lamentations far. It’s hard not to feel something when he croons “Up close, I fell in love with you (I met you at an early show). You fall in, I’ll fall along with you (We traveled ‘round the world together).” It might not be rocket science, but it certainly requires the right ear to balance pathos and poutiness, and our main man knows exactly what he’s doing. The songs on The Ballad of Darren are measured and contained. In fact, the calm gravitas which pervades the record occasionally plods. Perhaps it’s a meta-commentary on the album’s subject matter, or, perhaps, it’s just hard to make new music for 30 years straight.

Yet, there is a relief that is interspersed amid the LP’s gloom that arrives on more high-spirited, familiar tracks that are reminiscent of the group at their spiky-haired zenith. Look no further than “St. Charles Square,” one of the album’s singles, for a healthy dose of jagged, yelping ‘90s nostalgia. Distorted guitars and nonchalantly unsettling lyricism bring you right back to the band’s heyday—really, the tune reads differently enough from the rest of the record that it feels more like a reminder of their old sound than a continuation of their new thematics. But who can blame them for wading into their youthful glory for a bit? If The Battle of Darren teaches us anything, it’s that Blur has certainly earned it.

Miranda Wollen is Paste‘s music intern. She lives in New York and attends school in Connecticut, but you can find her online @mirandakwollen.

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