Blur return with an emotional comeback that stands as their most mature work to date – our pick of the week’s new releases
Halfway through Blur’s recent Wembley gig, Damon Albarn burst into tears. It’s been 35 years since the band first started, and eight since we last heard any new music from them. In 2015, The Magic Whip found the band still trying to prove themselves, but this year’s comeback lands them exactly where they need to be.
Wembley felt like such an emotional night for Blur because, well, it was Wembley, but also because the band have finally made their peace with who they are. Blur aren’t something to be left in the 90s and swapped for Gorillaz or The Waeve or film scores or cheesemaking – Blur are heartfelt, life-affirming, art-school indie rock. Newness and nostalgia wrapped up together in something electric. Stadium-sized sentiment and slightly ironic mosh pits. Everything The Ballad Of Darren does so beautifully.
Described in the notes as “an aftershock record”, the album deliberately keeps both feet in the past. Heartache and heartbreak fuel the lyrics throughout, but nothing here feels mawkish. “I just looked into my life / And all I saw was that you’re not coming back” sings Albarn on the Bowie-esque opener, ‘Ballad’ (a song that could as easily be about Bobby Womack as tour manager Craig Duffy or anyone else), but the self-awareness of it all lands the 60s sci-fi mood with lightness.
As if to remind us how much fun looking back can be, ‘St Charles Square’ kicks back in with Albarn’s trademark “Oiiiii!” over Graham Coxon’s garage guitar – a more mature ‘Beetlebum’ that wrongfoots again with an emotional core even more delicate than the opener.
Emotions ride up and down in opposite directions across the 10 tracks of The Ballad Of Darren, but it leaves you with something gently, sweetly, almost comically melancholy – a sadness that’s worth singing about.
‘Russian Strings’ gets phone torches in the air before ‘The Everglades’ strips things back to a Blackstar mood (Bowie looms large here, even in a track dedicated to Leonard Cohen). Sweeping first new single ‘The Narcissist’ feels like the album’s centrepiece (already fitting seamlessly into their greatest hits live set) but it’s followed up here by something more powerful in ‘Goodbye Albert’. Another song soaked in grief, sure, but one that also lets Coxon loose on a load of brilliantly weird space rock noodling that paints the whole thing as something more odd and interesting.
“What is the point in building Avalon / If you can’t be happy when it’s done?” Albarn sings on the sprawling indie rock opera ‘Avalon’, a song about “overdoing the dose” that rides into the closer. ‘The Heights’ reworks ‘Space Oddity’ into one of Blur’s grandest epics – a track full of feeling that bleeds out into white noise as Albarn reflects on the last 35 years with the same energy that lifted Wembley. “Are we running out of time / Something so momentary that you can only be it?”
Some things are worth crying about.