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CD of The Week

Week of 7/24/23

    Blur - The Ballad of Darren (Parlophone / Warner)

    The odd title of Blur’s first album in eight years, The Ballad of Darren, is a reference to the band’s former security guard and Damon Albarn’s good friend, Darren Evans. While probably unintentional, the connection between Evans’ occupation and the mood and effect of the album is clear. The ten-song album (Blur’s shortest by almost 15 minutes) feels like the work of a band that is secure in its members’ age, perspective, and deep legacy. While 2015’s The Magic Whip (which came after a 12-year gap) sometimes felt labored in its attempt to capture every element of the band’s 90s heyday, The Ballad of Darren rests comfortably in its somberness.

    Much of the album is piano- or keyboard-based with more emphasis placed on subtle melodic details and heartfelt lyrics than anthemic hooks. Albarn’s voice possesses more range than he normally demonstrates as he gently sings “I have lost the feeling that I thought I’d never lose” on the mature and poignant “Barbaric.” That lyrical perspective of loss and regret appears again on “The Everglades (For Leonard),” an acoustic track midway through the album where the narrator laments “the many paths I wish I’d taken / many times I thought I’d break.” This is a far cry from the youthful snark of “Country House” and “Girls & Boys” which may have gotten a great reception at Blur’s recent gig at Wembley Stadium but don’t accurately capture the perspective of Albarn or the rest of the band in 2023.

    That is not to suggest that The Ballad of Darren is one-note. “St. Charles Square” is a fun, uptempo song with crunchy guitar riffs from Graham Coxon while “Avalon” has psychedelic elements, brass flourishes, and haunting background vocals. Meanwhile, the album highlight is the first single, “The Narcissist” which features a propulsive melody and an insightful look at becoming self-aware about your own selfishness. A few tracks are a bit too languid for their own good, but the authenticity of Albarn’s lyrics and the immaculate production from James Ford (of recent Arctic Monkeys and Foals albums) always holds something of interest to the listener.

    There’s a lot of pressure for bands with catalogs as deep and enduring as Blur’s to make grand statements when they return from long hiatuses. Yet, not only is that unrealistic, it’s often not truly reflective of what a band wants to accomplish. While it won’t be mistaken for Parklife, The Ballad of Darren is a very solid collection of melodic, contemplative material written and played with a tremendous amount of care by four music lifers. That still results in a valuable artistic achievement, even if it won’t spawn a musical movement akin to Britpop.
    Review by Sol

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