The Ballad of Darren review: Blur may have just released the best album of 2023

The Ballad of Darren is Blur's ninth studio album and first record since 2015.
Blur Perform At Wembley Stadium
Blur Perform At Wembley Stadium / Jim Dyson/GettyImages

The Ballad of Darren sounds like an album from a band that has never taken nearly a decade off in between albums. Yet, that is exactly what Blur has done. Their last album, The Magic Whip, came out in 2015, and Damon Albarn and the band sound just as vibrant as they did when Parklife was released in 1994.

In fact, forget to a degree about how disjoined The Magic Whip seemed at times. The band didn't even record those songs together mostly, but instead came in a bit at a time to record is sessions. While The Magic Whip was the highest-charting album of Blur's career in the United States, Americans as a whole never really got Blur, much in the same way Americans didn't totally understand the Kinks.

Blur and the Kinks have at least two things in common. One is that both don't try to be anything they aren't. They are both English bands with English influences singing about the moments that formed them as humans. The second part is that both bands make amazingly great melodic, guitar-driven music that sounds just unintendedly edgy enough (the bands simply make music they want to hear and whether that bothers people is not their concern) to never put a foot in pop music.

Blur's The Ballad of Darren is the album you need in 2023

Speaking of Parklife, Blur's new album is very much the same group of musicians who made that incredibly wondrous record, took almost the next three decades off, and then came back to make an album telling us about how their lives have gone since 1994. But that would be selling the band short. They've made far too much glorious music since Parklife to ignore.

But The Ballad of Darren is fully mature. Albarn's lyrics focus on a variety of topics, such as too much drug use, relationship breakups (he basically even names a person in the song "Barbaric"), and reflects on mistakes made. But this isn't a dour album, though it has highly emotional underpinnings.

The music is just too much, well...Blur (and that's a great thing) for there to ever be a full 40 minutes of emo. Graham Coxon's guitar work is excellent, but always implies a sliver lining, Alex James' bass thumps and swerves enough to keep one on their toes instead of the dregs, and drummer Dave Rowntree always makes a move one doesn't expect.

I've always thought what separated Blur from many other bands, not just Britpop bands, was the absolute honesty of the work. Maybe Albarn sometimes hides in the character of a particular song's narrator, but we always know it's him. On this album, he comes through even more into the lyrics and they are consistently brilliant.

But Blur has always been a whole band, not just a singer who stands out. Every musician plays their part and the production on The Ballad of Darren couldn't be more spot on. It captures each individual of the group. In turn, what separates this record from nearly any other in 2023 and maybe any other in the Blur catalog is the group keeps the same high-level melodies and common themes, but does so with more an unfinished smile at the end instead of a smirk.

Final decision (Look away/Sample/Own/Steal): Steal this record and keep on high rotation

Other music news and analysis