Blur, ‘The Ballad of Darren': Album Review
The two previous albums Blur released in the new century were marked by their openness to expanding their music in whatever directions it, or the four members, saw fit. No longer expected to live up to being Next Big Things, or any expectations at all since their hiatus following 2003's Think Tank, Blur has often sounded refreshed and accepting of new ideas sparked by their personal pursuits.
This year has already seen the self-titled debut release of guitarist Graham Coxon's Waeve project with partner Rose Elinor Dougall; drummer Dave Rowntree's first solo album, Radio Songs; and the eighth album by singer Damon Albarn's Gorillaz side group, Cracker Island. (Bassist Alex James has kept busy on his farm, where he hosts an annual music and food festival.) Still, Blur's ninth album and the first in eight years, The Ballad of Darren, continues their move forward more than any of their recent individual ventures.
Their restlessness has always been in service of their music, from the tentative Britpop steps taken on the 1991 debut Leisure to the synth-pop and punk of 1994's breakthrough Parklife to the American indie-rock moves heard on 1997's eponymously titled album. Even The Magic Whip, the 2015 LP that ended the 12-year break, had some new tricks up its sleeve. The Ballad of Darren doesn't stop the streak.
The album opens with a three-and-a-half minute, truth-in-advertising song called "The Ballad," complete with strings and a reserved Albarn vocal. It's just the Trojan horse to push through the next song, "St. Charles Square," with wobbly, in-the-red guitar and Albarn declaring at the start, "I fucked up / I'm not the first to do it." It's an attention-getting moment and clearly designed as the record's gateway.
From the bubbly, synth-rock of "Barbaric" to "The Narcissist," the sort of timeless but deceptively unassuming song Blur excels at, The Ballad of Darren is one of Blur's most zigzagging albums. The genre-hopping is more evident than in the past; slow songs are followed by full-on rockers, which are followed by pop and electronic turns. You'd think the solo ventures would have sharpened their collective focus a bit more, but three decades after their debut, Blur remains one of modern rock's most fidgety bands. The thrill of The Ballad of Darren is never knowing where they will go next.