In June 2023, 90s Britpop powerhouse Blur released an album for the first time after their 8-year hiatus, and the results are well worth the wait.
Coming in at a tight 36 minutes, “The Ballad of Darren” is part concept album, part personal anthology. The significance of the titular Darren and his ballad are both still points of contention amongst fans, but the ideas conveyed through the album are clear.
“...’The Ballad of Darren’,” as Damon Albarn, lead singer, explains in an August Apple Music interview, “is a record that somehow carries all of us.”
Whatever the case, it is clear that each of the four members of Blur poured their hearts and souls into this project like they’ve never done before. Their 35 years of experience as a band has imbued this album with a certain sadness that only comes with age.
“It’s almost impossible not to have some kind of sadness in your life by the age of 55,” Albarn said.
An undercurrent of darkness runs through the entire record, and after the eccentricity of 2015’s “The Magic Whip” it feels very much like a return to form for Blur.
Albarn has achieved a level of notoriety for being the busiest person in music. Between “The Ballad of Darren” and “The Magic Whip,” he released four albums with his equally-successful side project, Gorillaz. Albarn created Gorillaz in 1998 as a commentary on mass-produced pop music, and became massively successful for their storytelling and unique approach to live shows: all of the members are cartoon characters, and Albarn himself plays the character of 2D, the lead vocalist.
Though there are commonalities, the difference in Blur’s stylistic approach to music is immediately apparent. Albarn’s iconic vocals take on a more prominent role, though the grit and complexity of the instrumentation are still at the forefront.
It is especially true in the case of this record that there is no better place to start than at the beginning. Its first track, “Ballad,” is a haunting introduction that simultaneously serves as a new beginning and a stark reckoning of things to come. Blur’s entire musical journey is laid bare to the listener in full scale, fraught with sorrowful vocals and bittersweet lyrics. “Ballad” is a fitting symbol for change, both in Albarn’s professional and personal life.
“The Narcissist,” released as a single a month before the full album, also provides insight into the deeper workings of the band’s mentality going forward. It happens to be accompanied on Spotify by an animation of a revolving mirror, first showing a clown playing piano, and then the flashing lights of a sold-out venue. Addiction to the spotlight and feelings of inadequacy are the central themes of this song. Albarn provides insight into his insecurities and the struggles that come from within being a prominent figure in the music industry.
Blur is also back on the touring circuit, and clearly devoted fans’ desire to see them perform has not wavered a bit, since Wembley Stadium sold out two days in a row when they announced the end of their hiatus. In the same Apple Music interview, Albarn describes these concerts as the best gigs Blur has ever played, and overall the band describes their comeback as a highly emotional experience for themselves and for fans.
Despite their separation, Blur has fallen back into their natural stride so well that it feels as though they were never apart to begin with. Fans can only hope for a continuation of this pattern and, until the next release, take comfort in the fact that Darren can speak on their experiences.
Lovers of Britpop, rock, and electronic music alike will likely enjoy “The Ballad Of Darren.” It is somber, but not just sad; bittersweet but not biting. Rife with commentary about the music industry and insights on getting older, it provides a unique listening experience for everyone. We can all learn from Darren’s experiences, and laugh at the absurdity of change through time.
Isabella Doyle is a third-year student majoring in English. She is a reporter and podcaster with the Campus Citizen. She plays the bass guitar in a band and enjoys reading novels, going out to the theater, and speaking with animals.