Blur’s two nights at Wembley Stadium on 9 and 10 July have already gained mythic status: even those who weren’t there have felt the ripples in the Britpop-time continuum. Three decades after their first love affair, there has been an oddly moving renewal of vows between the British public and their once-favourite band. And, although the atmosphere of those gigs was steeped in nostalgia – with Damon Albarn breaking off, as men of a certain age are wont to do, to reminisce about the friendship he forged with Graham Coxon “when I was 12 and you were 13” – here is a new album to prove that the band, who never split up, are not only in the business of looking back.
Except, of course, looking back is what Albarn does best. The reunion shows were a reminder that Blur’s greatest work is not represented by the tubthumping “Parklife” or “Song 2” but the songs that give Albarn’s melancholic sensibility full rein. The Ballad of Darren, their shortest album to date, is suffused with a sense of loss and yearning and is unmistakably the work of a man who recently described himself as a “certified sad 55-year-old”. It’s also the sound of a band who are back in the room together: Albarn has called this the “first legit Blur album” since 13 in 1999, given that Coxon barely contributed to Think Tank (2003), and The Magic Whip (2015) was assembled in piecemeal fashion. The Ballad of Darren new record has a cohesion and energy that places it among Blur’s best.
On the lead single, “The Narcissist”, everything falls into place: Coxon’s naive harmonies and chiming guitars, a propulsive rhythm section, and a lyric that contains multitudes. A portrait of Albarn’s childhood (and his habit of playing with his father’s strobe light in front of his bedroom mirror) becomes a reflection on the self-love of the social media age, which in turn is transmuted into a joyful image of the creative interplay between band and audience: “I’m going to shine a light in your eyes/You’ll probably shine it back on me.” It’s Blur’s finest song in 20 years.
[See also: Blur and the strange death of Britpop England]
The opening track, “The Ballad”, which gives the record its title, begins unassumingly with a drum machine and piano, but soon swells with harmony and strings into the ur- version of a Blur love song. The after-hours atmosphere and Sixties arrangements – no doubt aided by Albarn’s regard for Scott Walker and David Axelrod, and abetted by the producer James Ford, a member of Alex Turner’s baroque pop supergroup the Last Shadow Puppets – extends throughout the record, with Coxon weaving woozy guitar lines around Albarn’s wistful, weathered voice. “Russian Strings”, wraps its leisurely melody around an examination of war and complicity: “The tenement blocks came crashing down/With headphones on you won’t hear that much… There’s strings attached to all of us.”
The album’s most nostalgic moment is “St Charles Square”, which rewinds back to Blur’s art-school beginnings with rowdy guitars, glam swagger and a sardonic Ian Dury-esque vocal. The poppiest is “Barbaric”, which bounces along so delightfully that for a moment you forget that this is another bruising meditation on loss (as with 13, which marked the end of Albarn’s relationship with Justine Frischmann, The Ballad of Darren has strong “break-up album” undertones).
No Blur record is without its weak links, and it’s a shame that Albarn invites an unflattering comparison with Leonard Cohen by dedicating one of its slighter moments, “The Everglades”, to him. But this is also a cathartic exercise. “Avalon” is an account of a move to the countryside that, in its poignant, questioning tone – “What is the point in building Avalon/If you can’t be happy when it’s done?” – goes some way to erasing the memory of “Country House”, when Albarn, pleased with himself for rhyming “Balzac” and “Prozac”, was content to fill whole albums with charmless caricatures.
“The Heights” is a shamelessly sentimental closing song: one can almost hear the crowd singing along to it at the 2043 reunion: “I gave a lot of heart, so did you/Standing in the back row, this one’s for you.” It’s also irresistible, with Coxon’s guitar climbing up the scales, on the edge of feedback, as drums and bass pound and Albarn asks, with one eye on the mortal coil, “Are we running out of time?” Not quite. Not yet.
[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]