By Jake Paterson, Co-Deputy Music Editor
Blur have always been a little too British: too British to break America in the nineties, timing a large-scale return around the 2012 London Olympics, retreating into the home counties after the almost-forgotten Think Tank, and so on. What better way to mark thirty years of success than by falling into narcissism and their own projected image of how rubbish modern life in Britain is today?
Unlike 2012, where national pride was seeping out of every newspaper and biscuit tin, the present face of 'pride' is a damp squib. The coronation saw more people getting arrested in anti-monarchy protests than reaching for the bunting, strikes over fair pay have spanned across the health and education sectors for months, the cost of living led to another winter of discontent, and perhaps most importantly the Eurovision Song Contest was hosted in Liverpool yet the UK's entry was rock bottom but for Germany's weird metal effort.
When there is no trust in the government, we typically turn to some cultural entity to replicate our national trust. Waltzing back into the UK's subconscious is the band behind Cool Britannia, perhaps a last hope for a collective joy in being called British.
Ever since Blur's first hiatus in 2003, when Graham Coxon left the band before the Think Tank record had been finished, each subsequent reunion has been somewhat of an opportunity too good to turn down rather than a holistic project and experience. 2009 saw them headline the Glastonbury festival, 2012 the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games, and the 2015 album The Magic Whip came about after Coxon secretly worked on some improvised tracks before presenting them to a bewildered Damon Albarn to rushedly add some vocals.
Albarn arguably has been able to put on his Blur hat whenever his creative outlet requires it. With the likes of The Good, the Bad & The Queen left on the scrapheap and the success of Gorillaz amounting to a slot just below headliner at Coachella this year, it certainly seemed like the Blur train had well and truly run its ground unless another one of these rare opportunities presented itself.
Then, as if by magic, two shows at Wembley Stadium were announced for 2023. Alongside those shows a new record, The Ballad of Darren; something that Albarn calls "An aftershock record" in a press release, a "reflection and comment on where we find ourselves now." Provided with a stimulus significant enough, Blur will crawl their way back into the limelight, much to the joy of anyone who remembers physical copies of NME.
The difference this time, or so it seems, it that the process of recording wasn't as fraught as the Whip and was actually quite holistic and fun. Having written about 24 songs whilst on tour with Gorillaz last summer, Albarn gathered the troops to an intensive two month period in the studio starting in January this year. The record was finished and mastered last Monday, with their first show in four years at the Colchester Arts Centre the following Friday. Now that we are used to bands sitting on records for months before release, it seems that The Ballad was no industry project to scrounge out some extra cash for the near retirees but something done for a purpose.
The lead single, titled 'The Narcissist', suggests that it is Blur at the centre of a self-referential album and as someone always ready for a quick nostalgia hit, I was excited for whatever iteration of the band we were presented with.
The problem is that the single drags. It pulls at all the indie-kid tropes to lull you into a false sense of security that they are doing something revolutionary, but it's hardly relevant.
The opening picked guitar chords sound simultaneously like the Yeah Yeah Yeah's 2003 hit 'Maps' and the post-brexit post-punk anthem 'Magic of Meghan' by Dry Cleaning, with lyrics about mirrors and reflection suggestive of little more than just that. Albarn's voice is mixed so far above everything else that it seems like he is the only thing reminding us that this is a Blur track. You could easily hear the Sonic Youth-esque outro five nights a week from a student band in a support slot at the Crofter's Rights. It's so radio friendly that it almost hurts and begs the question that the idiosyncrasy and weirdness of 'Go Out' or 'Pyongyang' from The Magic Whip have all but disappeared.
Maybe there's more to come from The Ballad but I can't help but feel that the new record's aim is to wet the eye of indie-veterans, much like it did on first listen for Steve Lamacq. Whatever Blur have to say in 2023 seems rooted in the idea of narcissism; their self-absorbedness sees them turning back the clock onto a vision of the 90s and 2000s. The album cover for the new record calls back to the band's debut, Leisure, with a darker contemporary twist, further suggesting that the band are looking back rather than forwards.
And, to be honest, who can blame them. When videos came out from the Colchester warm-up gig of Albarn using a megaphone to imitate the 'woo-hoo's' in 'Song 2', obviously trying not to strain his voice, it felt to me that this was a last hurrah of sorts; an opportunity to give these great songs another run-out and enjoy each other's creative output again.
Are they still national icons? For sure. And despite the new single and prospect of similar on the new record, I don't think that anyone would turn down a chance to hear the greatest hits belted out one last time in the British sun.
'The Narcissist' is out now.
The Ballad of Darren is out 21 July.
Featured Image: Sonic PR
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