blur: The Ballad of Darren
LP | CD | DL | Cassette available at Sister Ray
Out July 21st
After a recent thunderstorm of sold-out shows, some of the venues of which could fit twice into their two mega Wembley debuts, blur emerge with a new album. Hardly a way to steer disbelievers that this is nostalgia slinging a trap in its hands, more the continuation of a story between best friends who can’t ignore the sheer power of what they have together. By Ryan Walker.
Liriope gave birth to a child, already adorable,
called Narcissus. In course of time she consulted the seer;
‘Tell me, ‘she asked, ‘will my baby live to a ripe old age?’
‘Yes’, he replied, ‘so long as he never knows himself’-
empty words, as they long appeared, but the prophet was proved right
In the event, Narcissus died of a curious passion
Or so The Narcissist, the debut song from blur’s ninth album, The Ballad of Darren expounds. The curious passion, from Echo and Narcissus, a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, contemporarily being: the world’s insatiable obsession, its addiction with image, with ego, and the rampant, conspicuous means of keeping it inflated through whatever lens we can let others look through.
You weren’t really expecting Song 2 again, were you? (or would that mathematically be more correct to call Song 3?). blur are so much better than that. They are, after all, a rather complicated cluster of four middle-aged men that enjoy the notion of having their fingers bit off by dipping them into unknown musical territories, but the journey just feels so goddamn right. Opposed to a complicated cluster of four middle-aged men that would rather get the band back together, spit out the singles, add another zero or two to the bank balance then ‘break up’ again. The results would be too good not to risk slinging on that bass again, stepping in front of that microphone again, hitting that drum once more, stomping on that distortion pedal again, and momentarily crack apart the lithospheric plates.
Anyway, the band is back. They’re fighting fit, hitting peaks, raising the standards of their own self-started bar and other such journalistic clichés about how well a band is performing upon re-entering the British pop arenas and areas they helped to define many years ago.
One of the best things about Blur though is that they can exist in both zones – the arenas and the academies, the underground and the overground, the enormity of the rock gods and the barbed, brilliant intellect of some frustrated indie weirdo, interested in both The Specials and Syd Barrett and still pack as much momentous wallop as the largest of large soft mallets is about to thwart the head of some poor, animatronic mole, rearing its head from the dark chambers of an old, ghostly arcade game. Wallop!
The band demonstrated such feats of finely-tuned, and newly-found musical connection here. One of intimacy, one of reflection, one of welcoming the surprise shining from the headlights rather than diving into the bushes that outline the road ahead, one of the human being in an increasingly mechanised world forced to absorb the aftershocks of everything around. Rather than being a bombast of manic, art-riffage with no concept of maximum load, than being a nonstop pop riot jampacked with ideas it ultimately turns into a work of individuals fighting for a fair share of the adventure from their own private corners, rather than the telepathic cohesiveness of the entire, inspired unit.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its adrenalised moments that don’t possess the Fahrenheit dial dip into anywhere available between 80 and 120 as St. Charles Square, the second single uppercut release from the album will attest to.
Yet still, it’s one that strips things back, and takes refuge recharging in the spaces of smoke and silver and shadow. Opener the Ballad breaks ice frozen over a nearby lake by the fluttering patter of drums and blissful piano keys creeping across, as skates would glide across it. Gradually it grows with greater splashes of effulgence and grandiosity, some lo-fi, sixties-dipped backing vocals and Phil Spector-in-outer-space guitar-shaped star explosions and strange, electronic noodling.
It’s never been an easy thing to understand Blur. It’s like trying to psychoanalytically dissect a fraternity and a family, found and fractured and found again, all smiling, shaking, sat on the same chaise lounge peppered by bric-a-brac both future and past, both 90s and now.
There is something in here that fans arriving and departing at various station of the group’s history will enjoy, having perhaps been surprised when slowburn that was the Narcissist came out, preferring the mischevious, bug spray pop art ambuscades in the shape of something like Death of a Party or the swampy, lo-fi blues tearjerker in No Distance Left To Run.
The aforementioned St. Charles Square is classic art school Blur, all angsty, agitated screams in amongst a fortress of psychedelic swirls and stabs from the psychiatric ward. All crumbling blocks of jagged, amplified noise, all seething and heaving with surprise and excitement. A brilliant pixellated Coxon riff, mangled and scrambled like chewing gum dragged along a newly polished floor by a dirty trainer. Albarn’s semi-spoken, semi-sung slurs poetically position themselves into the spaces between the blissful screeches, before the swathes of fuzzy, gloopy garage blitzkriegs return to fill in those halted zones.
Barbaric is a gorgeous spillage of melody and rhythmic lyricism that beautifully collapse on top of each other like instruments beautifully battling for the top bunk in a room turning upside down. ‘’At what cost, the feelings that we thought we’d never lose?’’ it asks, before answering – ‘’it is barbaric’’ whilst standing before the self–inflicted solipsistic firing line.
Delayed waves hit the beach’s shore at different times as guitars rattle and shimmer like the silhouettes of spies cast against the shutters are cut to pieces. Alex Jame’s bass doesn’t divert too far from the heart of the song, simply unabashed, unstoppable in its wonderful circularity, and enjoying the pull of the warm-blooded groove. Joyous, euphoric, direct down the line, the tip of a weird needle touching the vein that runs between the bathetic and beatifik sides to the psyche, before suddenly introducing an odd, transcendent hue into the mix before bursting, a sense of darkness but in a way which feels dizzying, weightless, a wonderful opening.
”The older and madder we get, it becomes more essential that what we play is loaded with the right emotion and intention” pontificates Graham on the album. ”Sometimes just a riff doesn’t do the job.”
Such a statement from such a legednary guitar player might come as a surprise to some folks whose main musical steal they take from Blur lays within the slay they’re often greeted with in the guitars (from Advert to Bugman). Subtalty stands for something, symbolic of letting the songs breathe, not drowning them in too much trickery but still cocooning you in that wacked-out, woozy state of something else. But that’s not to say the album doesn’t feature all those essential, little, auratic, interconnected intricacies that make blur…well blur.
Photo credit: Kevin Westerburg
Russian Strings sweeps us off our feet thanks to its ominous rumbling as though tumbling down a rabbit hole. Guitars weaving glittering, glissando cobwebs over a desolate countryside as the bomb detonates or the sun starts to dip behind the hills, either way, a masterwork of guitar ambiance that brightly chimes evermore upon each creamy, dreamlike change. Damon’s voice gets better with age, older and wiser, on the cusp of a croon, carried along by the soul of the song – reaching new heights and new lows. A conduit for the burning white light that sparks from the rest of the group, stripped down and sat behind a piano watching the pinwheels spin and the whole affair, politically and personally entwined, turn.
The acoustic finger pickings of The Everglades (For Lenoard) weave, wind up and unravel a hypnotic melody before as fizzles of atmospheric pangs erupt behind the eyes. Lonesome instruments speaking in the damaged language of transistor radio static, a broken blossom ballad. ”Why everything in this world, been lost ever since, and we are not giving in, we are not going to shy away”, goes the chorus, the sonic equivalent of opening the curtains and the view streaming through, a cosmic, country waltz of a song galvanised by defiance, resilience and great melancholy before dissipating into a ripple of white-hot, whirling feedback, concluding with ”We are searching the Everglades, suing god with change, and furthermore, I think it’s too late”.
A lot like 2015’s The Magic Whip fed on that sense of distant, geographic, nomadic solitude when Albarn was wandering in South Korea (the band were virtually stranded in Hong Kong and rather spend time drinking, did the only slightly-less sensible thing and made a fabulous comeback record with Graham picking up the pieces) to finish the job, to pen the most poignant point and invoke the most emotional moments by lyrically filling in where the melody left off, and drawing on the memories of those moments to do so, working remotely is what makes the song subtly hit us hard, the album was written and furnished in various forms in various places. Initially in the Autumn when Damon was in the States with Gorillaz, unpacking the makeshift studio then packing up again before moving onto another mad, metropolis, and also written residing on the Devon coast, overlooking a distinct landscape unique to that time.
Post-Brexit Britpop. God that sounds fucking disgusting. About as worthy of being entertained as stabbing a freshly sharpened Staedtler pencil in the eye. When catharsis is involved though, nostalgia is a passenger seat in a vehicle for a much greater spectrum of emotions. The view of history can be observed through rose tinted sunglasses from this seat, but it stops and ends where the window can be wound up. Rather, in thinking about catharsis, about the special alchemical connection between the band, there’s no need for nostalgia, simply the songs and the bittersweet taste they often leave on the gums.
blur will never just be at the apex of 90s pop. They traverse that specific phenomenon on the timeline, escaping the capsule that it’s contained in. And they can do so because those tunes are so remarkably timeless. They’ve come full circle. They can start again and still be blur. They’re musicians after all. Musicians more interested in new things but can still appreciate the notions of nostalgia when it’s more about friendship and love and a bond built on years of trust, rather than just slamming themselves into the same pair of shoes, the same chord progressions, the same slightly arthritic poses, playing the same songs that kicked their career into hysterical popularity. What would be the point?
Instead- they knuckle down and produce a new album. Aware of where they come from, aware of what the songs mean, but also aware of that insatiable indie itchiness, most likely instilled into them since Goldsmiths that pop can be just as, if not more operative as a vehicle for some sort of worldview when injected by some kind of astute, jerky intelligence. An indie itch that just has to be scratched then the foursome, unchanged yet, utterly different since say, Badhead or Beetlebum finally find themselves standing in close proximity to each other. An itch that keeps on coming back, that keeps on crawling under the skin.”For any long term relationship to last with any meaning you have to be able to surprise each other somehow and somehow we all continue to do that” Alex says of that inexplicable tie, umbilically, if spiritually wrapped around them all, an innate sense of communicating with each other and keeping the goods glowing golden.
Nervous at first, with the self sworn to secrecy, that kind of magic dynamic, their own brand of confidence and comfort with each other enabled Albarn to open up the initial listening of the tunes to more than just Graham, but felt the need to invite Alex and drummer Dave Rowntree over also to investigate what Damon had been up to. It’s this kind of comfort, this comfort in accepting a challenge, to embrace being either the hook or the loop in a strange strip of velcro that can only be achieved when all of them enter the same room and harness the energy each of them makes, resulting in a record that can only be, absolutely blur.
Goodbye Albert, another character in the blur oevure (olong with the tragicomic mockney caricatures played out by Colin Zeal, Tracy Jacks, Mr. Robinson, Yuko & Hiro etc) is what also makes blur a band capable of illuminating us about big themes (love, death, politics, technology, addiction, fame, friendships) but shrinking those big, overarching themes into something anthromorphised, something accessible, like the life of a person going about their business on the planet. Along with wonderfully vivid accounts of what occured when Albert is said goodbye to, talk of being ”crushed by sleep and unravelled dreams, washed away for hours”, it cinematically shakes with thunderous, electronic pulses and chaotic balls of nonsensical guitar trying to escape from the knot but only entangle themselves tighter upon each twist. Ebbing vibrations and soulful, synthpop oddness keeps everything glued together throughout its many moods and hues.
Far Away Island unfurls with spacious hits of electric organ blues and vocals haunted by themselves, falling down a staircase in some tall tower and ending up on a heap before a landscape painted by Dali. A trippy spectrum of twinkling rhythms tumble on top of each other, a genuine shapeshifting feat of genius musicianship in how well it eases the ears into the overall mood, before slapping us accross the face with something delightfully unexpected and spectacularly raw, but not eclipsing the initial motif, the poignant, alluring taste that compelled us to visit this island, this personified piece of dirt, this spot on the map where Damon dances ”alone with the moon and the white whale”, elevating it to the realms of fantastical, phantasmagoric theatre.
All of this begs the question: just who the fuck is Darren? Simply put, Darren is you and me and him and her and them lot out there. The every-person. The everyone. The band, when growing up and hanging out at the music portacabins at Stanyway Primary School, or making a strange name for themselves as Seymour at Goldsmiths College before eventually morphing into blur, all encountered a version of Darren. You probably have too.
But really the title references Darren “Smoggy” Evans, the band’s former bodyguard, now working with Albarn as both his anchor responsible for reeling him back from the abyss that is the audience he regularly straddles into, not too close by and never too far.
Avalon, the beautiful island where dead heroes depart to, almost bursts at the seams with a sea of heart-shattering brass exhaling a forceful, hypnotic melodicism but gentle to touch. A reverie with an ensuing refrain to subdue the onslaught from totally knocking us into dust, a breather to introduce some calm into the feral psychedelic storm of the whole multicoloured composition. Dust settles on untouched surfaces. A cosmic waltz warmed at the core by the aching melody, as if spun into existence by works of intimate magic, wraps around scenes of ”picking up apples” and ”crashing on shores” of Avalon, hinting at the frustrating juxtopositions that slide into the mind when, although working our fingers to the bone in the name of love, ultimately fail, left to face the remnants, the residue, of what we hoped would happen all along, a laughing simulation of ‘what ifs?’
The Heights begins with a Starman strum and situates itself atop the earth from a similar view. Ends in a blizzard of twisted shrapnel, a sprawling opus to end the Ballad, a hymnal for the neon panoramic, the ultimate platform above that Darren swims toward.
Echo was still a body, not a mere voice, but her chattering
tongue could only do what it does today, that is
to parrot the last few words of the many spoken by others
Or so that parabolic goes from ol’ Ovid again.
The Narcissist started this article and therefore, it has to end it. The essence of the Greek tale of the two involved, Narcissus and Echo, is cleverly replicated in the song as a perfect way to musically mirror this world’s insecurities with itself, forcing us to find virtually anything available in the electronic forest to keep up appearances, to generate extraordinary energy, abnormal and abject even, all from behind the handheld monolith. It shines brighter as one chorus crashes into another, the uplifting power of it’s nature deceptively encasing a topic of enchantingly dark tales, a warning slogan shot through the driven rock rhythms, marking that midway point between where the app ends and the user begins by shining ”light in your eyes”, only to have that light (probably, such ambiguity in the kinetic tricks of the working technologically underpinned days) shone ”back ton me”. But with godspeed on his side, ”I’ll heed the sign”, and see what happens.
blur are back, but they’re so ingrained into the collective consciousness of the country, of the world, that they never really went away. The Ballad of Darren, the ballads of you and me, surely certify, by ressurrecting past, even dark ambiances like the strangest of news shot down from another star, with little, if any distance left to run, and the impeccable, impressive gallop of their ‘Life’ albums and the experiments on the edge beyond the pop of Brit, they reach out to everyone, a buzz of universal broadcast.
It ends how it began, an echo.
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All words by Ryan Walker
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