BLUR - 'The Ballad Of Darren'

Published on 18 July 2023 at 19:11

By Paul Laird

Author of "The Birth And Impact Of Britpop: Mis-Shapes, Scenesters And Insatiable Ones"


Where was I when? 

I know that Chris Whitehill had a copy of “Popscene” on 7”. 


But before that I remember listening to “There’s No Other Way” at Dave Evans’ home in Kinghorn.  Another time that Dave was ahead of me. That makes it sound like there have been times when I  was ahead of other people. I haven’t ever been ahead of anyone, or anything, not even myself. 


What about me? 

When did I tune in? 


It started with those British Image #1 photographs. Blur in Fred Perry’s, 501’s, Docs, and a Great  Dane. God, they looked fucking deadly. Skinheads with mop tops. A glorious celebration of  British youth subculture. Hard Mods, suede heads…setting the template for how I would dress  over the next three years. 


That means that my gateway drug was Modern Life is Rubbish


‘Modern Life is Rubbish’ is more than an album. It is a manifesto. It is a rejection of the modern  world. It is a loving nod to a past that may never have existed. It is a blueprint for what should  come next. What ‘Modern Life...’ offered was a vision of England’s past that while romantic,  idealised and inaccurate in many ways was, nevertheless, quite beautiful. Beauty was not a word  that featured prominently in anyone’s dialogue throughout the grunge era. At the same time, Blur seemed to be suggesting that there was no reason why we all couldn’t celebrate the best of  Britain and Britishness without the need for jingoism or narrow xenophobia. From the perfection of  ‘For Tomorrow’ to the trippy delights of ‘Resigned’ and all the pop, punk and new wave delights in  between, it is a staggering and defiant work. Only ears made of cloth and a heart of stone could  fail to appreciate it.  


‘It’s an album that nearly didn’t get made,’ says its producer and, maybe, unofficial fifth member of  the band, Stephen Street. ‘I had produced about a third of ‘Leisure’ but Dave Balfe at Food didn’t  want me for the next one. Then a chance meeting with Graham Coxon at a Cranberries gig  rekindled his memories of working with me, he mentioned it to Damon and then I got a call about  the possibility of working with them again. It wasn’t a huge success but it tapped into the zeitgeist.  It was the stepping stone for what would happen with ‘Parklife’.  

(The Birth and Impact of Britpop, Pen & Sword


Then came Ellesse trainers, British rail jackets, Chelsea strips, and then the switch to darker, more  authentic, more significant things…like music, emotions, lives and loves. And then they  disappeared…the weight of it all becoming too much, the fraught sessions that would lead to  “Think Tank”, Gorillaz, solo careers, political careers, cheese. Farewell to the playground. 


It should have been a brilliant career. 

It was a brilliant career…but we didn’t want it to end. 


Then it stopped ending for a bit with “The Magic Whip” and then started ending all over again. Until the Britpop revival. 


There is no Britpop revival. 



The charts (remember them?) are not littered with new bands who sound a bit like Thurman or The  Weekenders.


The local high street isn’t populated by teenagers dressing up like the bloke from Supergrass who  isn’t Gas Coombes or the drummer. 


The average age at the recent Pulp and Blur concerts was north of 30 (at the lowest end of the  scale)…with a few curious teens making up the numbers. 


And none of that is a bad thing. 

Middle-aged people, like me, need places to go at the weekend…and hearing songs that remind  us of a time when we were not middle-aged is lovely. 


Young people should be making their own scenes, not L.A.R.Ping a scene that died in 1998 (it  actually died the moment Oasis arrived, but let’s not have that argument here). 

There is a wave of nostalgia this summer, but that isn’t a revival. 


I’ve seen some people claim that the revival (which doesn’t exist) has been going on since 2014… 9 fucking years ago, which would make the revival longer than the thing it is reviving. 



And now… 

Who won the “battle of Britpop”? 


They nabbed the number one spot ahead of Oasis. 



Then Oasis became the biggest band in the country…maybe in the world…and the idea that the  war had been won by the Manchester “lads” began to cement itself in the popular consciousness. 

They had 8 number one singles after the battle…Blur had only one. 

They also bagged 7 UK number one albums…one more than Blur. 




But the truth is that Blur gave up on ridiculousness like “beef” with other bands almost as soon as  the last copy of “Country House” slipped from the shelves in HMV. They had long sought the  label of pop stars, but when the reality of that began to sink in…they didn’t much care for it. 


The reason for that is quite simple, Blur (unlike Oasis) were always more interested in art than  “success”. The march for top of the pops was always, possibly subconsciously, about something  more than cash in the bank or their pretty little faces on the cover of Smash Hits. 


Look at the artwork from the Leisure era…arch, popART, peculiar, provocative, precious. Watch  the videos for “There’s No Other Way”, “She’s So High”, “Bang”…at times they are Lynchian  nightmares. Listen to the drone of “Sing”…a sullen slab of subdued social commentary. 


Right from the get go. 

Over a career that has now spanned more than 30 years they have been consistent in being true  to themselves. 

Some bands write the same song over and over again, they have no voice, no vision, just a  rhyming dictionary.




But Blur have what all artists have…a voice. 

Everything they have ever recorded is, unmistakably, Blur. 


Everything they have ever recorded sounds different to every other thing…but it remains Blur. 

This isn’t just about Damon Albarn, a man who has recorded world music albums, operas, and  who has created one of the most interesting projects in pop music history with Gorillaz. 


This is a collective effort. 

This year alone Dave Rowntree and Graham Coxon have released new music that reveals them  both to be as capable of stepping away from the idea of what Blur are as Albarn. Those different  approaches, different styles, different voices, show them to be artists in their own right. 

And now, too many years since the magnificent “Magic Whip”, Blur are back. 


The easiest thing in the world for them to have done would have been to release an album that  was filled with knees up muvver Brown nonsense, terrace stomp “bangers”, featuring guest  vocals from Danny Dyer on a song called “Turned Out Nice Again”, and then pocketed the cash. 



But what would be the point? 

To keep the men who can’t move on from 1994 happy? 

To keep the geezers who want to whitewash the truth about lad culture safe in their bubble of  denial? 

To take the path of least resistance? 




More than anything “The Ballad of Darren” is an album about loss. Albarn has experienced a  great deal of loss, and heartbreak, in recent times and all of that can be felt in every line of the  album, and in the tone of the album. Blur have always been at their very best when they have revealed who they are, how they feel. While the songs that pass comment on das leben der  anderen are interesting, clever, arch and knowing, it is the personal that really resonates. 


“The Ballad” starts with a hazy, hypnotic, beat and Albarn intoning; “I just looked to my life…when  the ballad comes for you, it comes like me”. It is a doleful, soulful, heartbreaking, opener. It also  highlights one of the most important aspects of the album…Albarn’s voice. He could sing a dirge  like *insert your own most loathed song here* and make it sound like the most beautiful thing you  have ever heard. There is a sense of longing and despair in his vocal, but it also soars at times in  a way that lifts your heart from the gutter (don’t tell me it’s just me?). 


What follows is the noisenik roar of the already released “St Charles Square”, a track that calls to  mind the Modern Life is Rubbish era, specifically some of the more interesting b-sides of that  period, and the less glossy moments of The Great Escape. While it is spikier than most anything  else on the album it doesn’t ever veer into pop territory of the likes of “Stereotypes”, instead it  seems perfectly comfortable in being a wonky, art school, left-field, curiosity. 


I have lost the feeling that I thought I’d never lose” (Barbaric) could be my personal mantra. As  the kids like me who propelled Blur to the top of the pops zero in on their fifties (as I write it is my  own fiftieth birthday), it is impossible to ignore the passing of time and all of its sickening crimes; chiefly the fact that all the feelings I had about all sorts of things…are disappearing and are being  replaced by other feelings. It’s very unsettling. But also evidence of being a real human being,  capable of change, of seeing things in different ways, of moving on…and not trying to convince  myself that nothing has changed. E.V.E.R.Y.T.H.I.N.G.H.A.S.C.H.A.N.G.E.D (no matter how many  XXL Fred Perry’s you squeeze yourself into).  


The first time I cried during this album (yes, it happened more than once) was when “Russian  Strings” hit me with;  

“The tenement blocks come crashing down, with headphones on you won’t hear that much,  there’s nothing fake on earth, there’s strings attached to all of us, there’s nothing in the end, only  dust, so turn the music up, I’m hitting the hard stuff”  




This isn’t your vorsprung durch technik you know. 


A tender, beetlebum, of an anti-war track. 

A hymn to the homes and lives gone as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. 

A sensitive subject that has to be handled sensitively…only a real writer could pull it off. 


War and peace can lead musicians into some awful creative spaces, just think about John Lennon  (worthy sentiments…terrible songs) or the likes of Ocean Colour Scene and “Profit in Peace”.  Blur avoid that because…they are better than saccharine sentimentality for complex concepts. 


There are mentions of refugees and farewells, maybe not linked to the theme of “Russian Strings”,  on a later track, “Goodbye Albert”. One of the very best moments on the flawed 1995 album “The  Great Escape” was “Yuko and Hiro”, and “Goodbye Albert” has a very similar flow and feel.  


There are ghosts all over “The Everglades”, the dreams we had as children echo through each  line. Traces of Nick Drake and Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd float across it. It marks the second time  I have cried as I listened. It serves as a reminder that Blur have always been at their best when  the mask is removed, when instead of standing on the terraces they sit on a park bench,  watching, observing, listening, feeling and not acting. 


Art over artifice? 


I have listened to “The Narcissist” so many times, some might say “too many times”, since it  dropped. It has played on a near constant loop. I think it might be my favourite Blur song…ever  in the world ever. I can hear them already: “For Tomorrow”, “The Universal”, “This is a Low” they  are yelling in the little corner of Twitter reserved for tastemakers/gatekeepers of the Britpop  “community”. “Beetlebum”, “Tender”, “Coffee and TV” the edgy cats are whispering. They are all  right, those are songs almost every other band in British popular music would have cut their own  faces off to have written…and I love ‘em all too…but I am serious, this latest thing might be the  greatest thing. 


“Are you dancing, are there new tunes to play?”  


That line on “Far Away Island” sums up my issues with the notion of a “revival”. Can’t we find  new tunes to play? Can’t we celebrate the fact that the bands, and artists, we loved then are  different, and better, now? Accepting that things aren’t automatically brilliant just because we  heard them before we lost our virginity is a good thing, it doesn’t mean those things aren’t still  great…they are, just like sex, but new things can be just as good, maybe even better…just like sex (I’m no expert, but I took out a subscription to Karma and it looks like there might be more to  the beast with two backs than I previously imagined).


“I miss you, I know you think I must be lost now, but I’m not…anymore” is another moment that  perfectly captures my own sense of location and dislocation from the world around me. And it  marks the third time I have cried while listening… 


With references to painted planes flying off to war, “Avalon” brings back memories of the cover of  “For Tomorrow”, blacked out Spitfires on a painted sky. Nostalgia has always played its part in  the Blur catalogue, going to the fringes of pop music history for inspirations, playing with  archetypes and stereotypes. It’s surprising that it has taken over thirty years for them to write a  song with an Arthurian title. But again there is no re-treading of their own past, this isn’t the  satirical observation of “Sunday Sunday”, and there is no oompah-pah brass band, or any Chas  ’n’ Dave invitations to take a walk dahn The Strand. Instead it is another achingly Romantic  piece. 


Even when I am in a room full of people, I can feel alone. I’m not lonely, there are people all  around. I have a family, I even have some friends, but somewhere deep inside of me there is a  constant feeling that it is all temporary…that soon enough people will figure me out, drop me, and  I will be on my own. I think my defence mechanism for coping with that is to have, just below the  surface, a feeling that I am alone.


Deep innit. 

Everything is only momentary. 

Or summat. 

“The Heights” gets it. 

Which suggests that Blur get me. 

And that means I might not be quite as alone as I think I am? 

“Suppose I’m on my own tonight, suppose I’ve gotta find the heights, I gave a lot of heart, so did  you…”  

Did I say I had cried three times listening to this? 


Make it four. 


At the end of “The Ballad of Darren” I feel exhausted and exhilarated, maudlin and magnificent,  understood and understandable. This is the sound of a band operating at the height of their  powers. Forget all the old songs, tuck away your memories, embrace this one for the modern.  Songs for the you you are today, not the you you never were then. You will thank me. 


Their best album? 

It’s not for me to say. 

But yes, it is their best album.