Blur's 'Ballad' to bittersweet midlife
Damon Albarn has never needed to return to Blur. He's in an unusual position in that Gorillaz, the feature-heavy, rap-adjacent project that has been his primary concern for over 20 years, is actually significantly more popular than the Britpop band that made him internationally famous in the 1990s. So unlike the many veteran stars who get their bands back together largely out of pragmatism in a market that can be indifferent to mid-career artists, Albarn could easily opt out of nostalgia-driven reunion shows and stick to teaming up with an endless revolving door of A-listers. (Cracker Island, this year's Gorillaz offering, features top-shelf collaborators Bad Bunny, Stevie Nicks, Tame Impala and Beck.) That he continues to reconnect with his Blur bandmates Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree and Alex James speaks to something besides commercial necessity: loyalty perhaps, but also an acknowledgment that he has a special chemistry with this group that goes back to its earliest days.
The Ballad of Darren, the band's ninth album overall and third since Albarn began Gorillaz, is its most concise and low-key body of work. The 10 songs, all written and recorded in a brief window earlier this year in anticipation of a string of major European arena and festival gigs this summer, are mostly stately mid-tempo ballads that shy away from either the grandeur of orchestral pop hit "The Universal" or the more abject vein of "No Distance Left to Run." The tone is consistently bittersweet and resigned, with Albarn singing about moving on from a broken relationship with the weathered perspective of someone who's done this all before.
Put another way, it's very adult, mature work — and not in the way those words can sometimes be used as a pejorative, to dismiss music that doesn't address emotions with the vividness of youthful first exposure. Songs like "The Ballad" and "The Narcissist" express angst and regret, but also a version of hope — that wounds will heal, that things will eventually work — that only comes from accrued experience with the cycles of life. Given that Albarn's lyrics have tended to skew cynical, pessimistic, or in the case of 1995's The Great Escape, outright misanthropic, it's a significant shift. With the exception of the 1999 heartbreak suite 13, with which it shares a kind of rhyming resonance, this album's sentiments stand apart from most of Blur's catalog.
Albarn has explained that the songs that became The Ballad of Darren weren't originally envisioned as a Blur album. It's a fact that only works to the record's advantage, in that none of what's here is straining to deliver on expectations of what "Blur" is supposed to be — whether that's the arch and almost cartoonishly British aesthetics of Parklife or the more arty and abrasive tones of its 1997 self-titled album. Darren's songs fall into a space between those extremes, a position you can triangulate by listening closely to Coxon, whose playing holds the refined and clean guitar style of band's prime Britpop era in equal stead with the looser, more expressive mode of his late '90s sound. James and Rowntree's elegant grooves, particularly on "Russian Strings" and "Avalon," keep the songs from sounding anything like Gorillaz, nudging the material closer to the feel of Burt Bacharach or later Roxy Music.
And throughout The Ballad of Darren, heard especially powerfully on the single "St. Charles Square" and "Goodbye Albert," are echoes of David Bowie. Coxon evokes Robert Fripp's frazzled tone from 1980's "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" on the former, but the bulk of the influence actually seems to come from Bowie's 21st century work, particularly the comeback salvos Heathen and The Next Day. You can hear it most clearly in Albarn's voice, which he pitches down to a handsome yet manic baritone. But it's also there in the song structures, arrangements, and focus on an emotional reality of aging: easing into some degree of self-acceptance, while still very much trying to get your act together.
Like Bowie, the members of Blur don't seem interested in recapturing old glories, especially since they already have more than enough old favorites to fill out a setlist. The Ballad of Darren is a work unapologetic about its own middle-aged point of view, and is made with the understanding that for an artist to age gracefully, they need to offer listeners a perspective that could never have come from their younger selves.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.