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Thirty years ago blur released their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish — an album that acted as both foretaste and catalyst of a British pop renaissance whose impact pushed outwards into the worlds of art, cinema and even politics. In its wake, came a unique body of work which acted as a parallel history of Britain up to and beyond the end of a century. Abundant with chart-topping albums, number one singles, Brit and Ivor Novello Awards, blur's canon continues to resonate and inspire through the decades. Songs such as For Tomorrow, Girls & Boys, Parklife, Beetlebum, Song 2,More

Thirty years ago blur released their second album Modern Life Is Rubbish — an album that acted as both foretaste and catalyst of a British pop renaissance whose impact pushed outwards into the worlds of art, cinema and even politics. In its wake, came a unique body of work which acted as a parallel history of Britain up to and beyond the end of a century. Abundant with chart-topping albums, number one singles, Brit and Ivor Novello Awards, blur's canon continues to resonate and inspire through the decades. Songs such as For Tomorrow, Girls & Boys, Parklife, Beetlebum, Song 2, Coffee & TV and Tender have become modern standards, both to long-time fans and generations of music lovers around the world who were yet to be born during the group's imperial hit-making phase.

When blur announced their biggest ever show after eight years away, the Wembley Stadium concert sold out immediately, hastening the announcement of a second date alongside a string of headlining festival appearances across Europe and South America. To mark their return, the group — still comprised of their original line-up, Damon Albarn, Graham Coxon, Alex James and Dave Rowntree — release a brand new album of original songs, written and recorded in London and Devon.

With cover art featuring an image by celebrated documentary photographer Martin Parr, The Ballad of Darren is blur's ninth album and their most arrestingly intimate work to date. Working with producer James Ford, the group convened at Albarn's Studio 13 in the spring of this year to prep for the upcoming shows. During the London sessions, the four musicians workshopped two or three songs a day in the live room, drawing on the muscle memory of shared history until they had the songs which form the album. What, to outside observers, might have seemed like a chaotic process took shape at speed as the songs alchemised into a sound that those same outside observers couldn't mistake for anything other than blur.

Recalling the discordant art-pop swagger of favourites such as Trouble In The Message Centre and Trimm Trabb, the chorus of St. Charles Square sees Albarn queasily exclaim, "'Cause there's something down here / And it's living under the floorboards" encircled by backing vocals that compound the sense of encroaching peril and a quintessentially marauding guitar turn from Graham Coxon. Here and elsewhere, it's clear that these songs are the result of deep emotional excavation. The driving epiphanic energy of The Narcissist extends beyond its lyrical allusions to taking acid "under white horses" at solstice time to encompass a sizzling ensemble performance and anthemic chorus that's nothing short of life-affirming. Over a soft sunburst of horns, Avalon finds our protagonist blinking into the new dawn, trying to locate spiritual succour in the face of what life seems fated to throw at them: "What is the point in building Avalon / If you can't be happy when it's done."

Scratch the surface of its deceptively pretty hook and Barbaric sees Albarn ask, "At what cost, the feelings that we thought we'd never lose?" It's a tone set by the album's brutal yet beautiful opener The Ballad. As flashbacks of happier times briefly materialise through the fog of loss, Albarn sleepily intones "I fell in love with you," and yet somehow it's the sound of Coxon hitting the sweet spot between pathos and bathos, singing "I met you at an early show" that somehow moistens the tear ducts.

Comparable magic abounds on Russian Strings; carried to shore aboard Coxon's mellifluous interjections and lapping waves of starlit piano glissandos, Albarn leans into the few certainties available to him at that moment in time: ."..turn the music up / I'm hitting the hard stuff." On Goodbye Albert, blur fashion a majestic slice of melancholy that stands shoulder to shoulder with beloved past glories such as Strange News From Another Star and The Universal.

For James Ford, the objective across the whole of the album was to burrow into the emotional centre of each song, a job that might seem easy on the face of it. But it's worth bearing in mind that, as with the group's previous album, 2015's The Magic Whip, the words were the last thing to fall into place. On that record, Albarn went "method," and embarked on a solo voyage to South Korea to re-immerse himself in the circumstances of that album's recording. For The Ballad of Darren, Albarn decamped to his home on the Devon coast and put words to the feelings that spawned the melodies in the first place. The Everglades blossomed from tender acoustic meditation, via a late-night recording session, into a hard-won hymn to stoicism: "We are not going to shy away / We are growing tall with the pain / We are searching the everglades"; a lovelorn intimacy matched by the fragile entreaties of a protagonist "cut to pieces" on Far Away Island.

At times like this, Damon Albarn sounds like a man both lost and found in music; in a sound that effortlessly seemed to invent itself all those years ago, when blur first made a noise together. And, of course, it's an effect by no means restricted to him. On an album rich with such moments, you might want to hasten to the redemptive uplift of its climactic closer. By any metric, The Heights is a very special song in blur's canon — a heartfelt love song to the fans with whom every new release has acted as part of a

lifelong correspondence; each eagerly anticipated record a co-ordinate used to chart and help us understand our own stories. "Suppose I've got to find the heights / I gave a lot of heart, so did you / Standing in the back row, this one is for you." The Ballad of Darren was released by Parlophone on 21st July 2023.

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