There was no concrete plan for new Blur music when the veteran alt-rockers announced a pair of July shows at London’s Wembley Stadium. It had been a few years since anyone had heard the Britpop kings’ pithy, jangly approach to songwriting. The band popped out for a few songs at a 2019 event put on by front man Damon Albarn’s nonprofit organization, Africa Express, but prior to that, the last major Blur endeavor was releasing and touring behind the 2015 comeback album The Magic Whip. That one almost didn’t happen; sessions began after a festival in Japan was canceled, leaving the band with unexpected downtime in Hong Kong, which inspired the meditations on cities, architecture, and crowds peppered throughout Whip’s “New World Towers” and “I Broadcast.” Plant Albarn in any scenic location and the local culture, economy, and ecology seep in, mixing with his penchant for classic English melancholia and cascading over intricate productions in which international sensibilities collide. Trips to Iceland inspired late-’90s Blur classics as well as the chilly auditory still lifes of the 2021 solo album The Nearer the Fountain, More Pure the Stream Flows; time in East Africa yielded 2002’s Mali Music, featuring collaborations with kora player Toumani Diabaté.
In the quiet moments of touring with Gorillaz on their 2022 world tour, Albarn worked out 20 song ideas that he presented to his Blur bandmates with the intention of consummating the Wembley reunion with fresh music. The Ballad of Darren, their ninth record, is both an extension of the haze of sadness clouding the latest Gorillaz album and a bookend to Modern Life Is Rubbish, the 1993 album written after another Blur tour of the States, one launched to recoup unexpected debt accrued through mismanagement. Rubbish honed both Albarn’s knack for trenchant observations about life in a colossal cultural rut and the band’s pop-rock acumen, paving the way for a hit parade that lasted nearly a decade (ending in the acrimony of guitarist Graham Coxon exiting the band early on during the sessions that produced 2003’s Think Tank). The quartet was whipping itself into fighting shape, outpacing partying, unprofessionalism, and a country teeming with hungry competition. There are acts that have an easier go of this, with less volatile combinations of personalities and more responsible pools of decision-makers, but the ever-present possibility that the whole thing could come apart at any moment sort of defines Blur both in and out of music. It’s in the howling solo tearing the jangly “Coffee & TV” apart and in the habits and misdeeds off the record. Of course the new Blur album almost didn’t happen. The same is true of the last one and the one before that.
Like Rubbish and its terser sequels Parklife and The Great Escape, Darren is disappointed in the cultural rhythms a new decade is settling into, jaded about social-media obsession where the Blur of yore railed against commercialism. The man who wrote 1995’s snide “Country House” has moved to a house in the countryside, and a mellowness overtakes the album that may surprise listeners who come to the catalogue for experimentation and guitar wizardry. But it fits in the wheelhouse of the group behind ’90s weepers such as Parklife’s “End of a Century” and “Badhead” and The Great Escape’s “Best Days” and “The Universal.”
Darren’s early singles — the rowdy “St. Charles Square” and the rousing “The Narcissist” — are sort of like movie trailers that spoil all of a film’s biggest explosions. They’re the traditional rockers in a collection that delivers a healthy serving of the ballads it advertises. “St. Charles Square” conjures the bratty vocals and screaming distortion that would power the band to success in America after “Song 2” took root but also the glam- and progressive-rock classics Coxon adored growing up, imagining King Crimson’s Robert Fripp taking his chain-saw guitar tone to a Mott the Hoople track. “The Narcissist” revisits the aspirant energy of songs like “For Tomorrow” and “Advert,” odes to people biding terrible times. (These seem to go over well in the footage of recent shows, at which “St. Charles” destroys as set opener.)
Elsewhere, Darren prefers to splash around in gorgeous arrangements and slower pacing. “The Ballad,” an old demo fleshed out at the insistence of longtime friend and sometime security guard of the band Darren “Smoggy” Evans, borrows the folkie warble David Bowie used on Hunky Dory. The airy drums of “Russian Strings” and the delicate guitar in “The Everglades (for Leonard)” are reminders that this crew was raised in the shadow of the majesty of the Beatles and Pink Floyd as much as the downcast New Wave and synthetic feel of “Barbaric” and “Goodbye Albert” bear out that this album was written in a Gorillaz cycle. Darren gazes at the back catalogue and influences while pushing the band into the sentimental stuff that record executives used to beg these guys to write.
Yet there’s something unpleasant scampering through these stacks of pretty melodies — a war between nostalgia for a less complex time and the acceptance of a less-than-desirable present. “We have lost the feeling that we thought we’d never lose,” the second track laments. “It is barbaric.” “I know I can’t change the times,” “The Ballad” concedes. “I fucked up,” “St. Charles” admits in a biting first verse that ends with Albarn singing, “Call me out, but call me.” Darren feels like a breakup album — “Barbaric” offers to discuss “what this breakup has done to me” before the chorus — but Albarn isn’t dishing. Maybe he’s reworking the disaffected character studies he used to excel at in this band, identifying grief and yearning as the major themes of the ’20s, and maybe it’s convenient to let people think he’s writing about universal themes because he is the protagonist in these stories about longing for connection to a partner who has moved on. “Avalon” is inarguably a very personal inversion of the songs about suburban displeasure that Albarn wrote in his 20s, a suggestion that if you do manage to secure the nice house outside the city, then you better learn to love your new arrangement: “What’s the point in building Avalon / If you can’t be happy when it’s done?”
Whether you receive these songs as dispatches from the insides of the jagged jaws of heartbreak or just gripping first-person fiction about said jaws, the lyrics cut like the band’s best work and the galaxy of side projects around it. “The Narcissist” swings for the fences, attempting to criticize what Albarn calls “the most narcissistic age of man ever” in interviews but coming out with something more poignant: “Oh, glorious world / Oh, potent waves, valleys gone wild / Connect us to love and keep us peaceful for a while.” “I am cut to pieces,” “Far Away Island” exhales darkly. “And I am dancing alone with the moon.”
It’s around “Island” that the album’s paddle begins to feel like a plod. In the back half, “Island” and “Goodbye Albert” deliver simmering, crescendoing performances in which bassist Alex James and drummer Dave Rowntree shine at the cost of some momentum. “Avalon” mixes it up, modulating between a patient, soulful groove and the confident mid-tempo stomp of the Beatles’ “Carry That Weight.” Closer “The Heights” gets a jolt when Rowntree drops in with a massive beat and the song disappears into the shroud of encroaching fuzz you might have been itching for after four slow songs in a row, offering a moment of skronk for longtime listeners spoiling for more of the raucous performances and the undulating waves of noise populating 1997’s Blur and 1999’s 13, the ones MTV and American rock radio took a shine to.
That experiment took time, and this band didn’t have years to workshop material. Everyone has their own thing going on: Rowntree and Coxon put out albums earlier this year; James hosts an annual festival. Did The Ballad of Darren come together too quickly to marinate in the sauces that turn a Blur album into a psychedelic odyssey? Perhaps. But they crafted something beautiful with the time allotted. Darren’s unhurried tempos and tones massage where one might have preferred them to maim, displaying a delightful (if frustrating) unwillingness to stick to the stuff the fans crave. It’s a fitting evolution for a band once powered by a cocktail of chaos, self-destruction, and excess, this moment of stillness.