How a Changing World Brought Damon Albarn Back to Blur
Damon Albarn flips a cigarette into his mouth and misses. It’s two weeks until Blur will play two sold-out nights at Wembley Stadium – the first time the band has performed together in London since 2015 – but if there’s any sign of stress, the frontman is keeping it well hidden. His botched Danny Zuko impression, perhaps the only sign of jitters.
In recent weeks there have been a smattering of European festival dates and low-key warm-up shows, played in venues better suited to the Blur of the early '90s – before the Britpop wars, the No. 1s, and the somewhat acrimonious split in 2002 which saw guitarist Graham Coxon leave the band.
There have been reunions since then (some more successful than others), and now in their mid-to-late-50s, Blur are back to play the biggest shows of their career (tickets available here). But this isn’t just a legacy band looking for a quick buck; Blur have readied a new studio album in The Ballad of Darren, their most poignant and heartfelt record in 24 years. It's an effort that finds Albarn in the midst of major life changes, searching for meaning in the things – and people – that he’s lost.
It’s the night before the band plays Roskilde Festival, one of the last shows before the Wembley double whammy, and Albarn seems fairly chipper, especially about the new music. “The Ballad of Darren is the first legit [Blur] album since 13,” Albarn tells Consequence over a slightly wonky Zoom connection from Denmark.
There have, of course, been two Blur albums since 1999’s 13, a record penned in the midst of Albarn’s breakup with Elastica’s Justine Frischmann and some of his most emotionally charged and personal writing – until now. First was 2003’s Think Tank, which saw Coxon walk out of the sessions (and the band) early on. The absence of Coxon’s guitar was notable, with Albarn experimenting more with electronic production to fill the hole. Then in 2015 came The Magic Whip, an album which, with Coxon reinstated, was seen as a return to former glories and an attempt to not leave their legacy ever-so-slightly tattered. So what makes these 10 new songs more Blur than the last lot?
''THE BALLAD OF DARREN IS THE FIRST LEGIT BLUR ALBUM SINCE 13.
WE APPROACHED IT LIKE WE WOULD HAVE APPROACHED MAKING A RECORD BEFORE.''
“Because we approached it like we would have approached making a record before, with all of us together in the room,” Albarn explains.
The Magic Whip was reportedly a bit of a happy accident, songs concocted in Hong Kong in a matter of weeks after an Asian festival slot was canceled. But with Darren, there was more intention and more time. At first, the plan was to just do Wembley – a nice day out for 180,000 fans craving a dose of nostalgia. But a trip to America found Albarn writing in between other work, music that didn’t quite fit his solo projects or Gorillaz. He took the songs to his old bandmates – Coxon, bassist Alex James, and drummer Dave Rowntree – and The Ballad of Darren was born.
“I wrote it in my downtime in hotel rooms in America,” he says, puffing on his cig. “But it became Blur with the four of us.”
By his own admission, Albarn is a prolific songwriter (“I don’t want to come across as completely obsessive, but I do try to write music everyday”), but Darren wasn’t always necessarily the destination for these 10 new tracks.
“I suppose there must have been something in my mind when I was in wherever I was, on whatever day that I wrote whatever song in America…” he trails off. “I wasn't really thinking about it. It was too loaded a task to write for Blur. I just wrote what I needed to write.
To call The Ballad of Darren a breakup album would be to make assumptions about Albarn’s private life and long-term partnership with artist Suzi Winstanley – details he doesn’t offer up. But he does agree; this one’s personal.
There’s an overwhelming melancholy to much of the record. The first line we hear on opener “The Ballad” is engulfed in loss and longing, something that permeates each subsequent song. “I just looked into my life/ And all I saw was that you’re not coming back," Albarn sings in his distinct baritone, setting the tone for what’s to come. On “Barbaric,” he’s seemingly looking for answers: “And I would like if you’ve got the time/ To talk to you about what this breakup has done to me/ I have lost the feeling that I thought I’d never lose/ Now where am I going?” It all compounds into a monumentally sad album.
“Well that’s okay, because I’m a sad man,” he smiles, gold tooth twinkling. “It’s ironic, but I’m happy being sad.”
Melancholy has certainly seemed to cloak much of Albarn's work. From gut-wrenching Blur songs like "No Distance Left to Run" and "Tender" to side project The Good, the Bad & the Queen’s gloomy portraits of a post-Brexit England, sadness has been as much of a through-line as his observations on British culture and identity.
"The first song that really captured my heart was 'Seasons in the Sun,' the Terry Jacks version," Albarn shares, recalling the track sung from the perspective of a dying man addressing those he loves. "It did something to me when I listened to it on the radio. I don't know whether a five-year-old should really have been affected in that way about that kind of subject matter. So, I've always had a strange relationship with sad music. I do love listening to it."
Prodded more about the personal nature of the lyrics, words that hint at the end of something huge, Albarn skirts the issue by focusing on the sonics. “There are certain cadences which are just innately sad and carry the stories of thousands of years,” he continues. “They’re just in our DNA, just like if you grew up in Palestine and naturally sing those quarter tones, to express joy and pain. It’s the spaces in between the notes that people carry with them, if they're that way inclined.”
Back in January 2023, Albarn presented his bandmates with 20 of these new downhearted tracks, of which 10 were selected to be worked on collectively. By May, they had an album.
“I wasn't too keen on Alex and Graham being there to start off with," he admits. “Just because I hadn't worked with four people in that way for a long time. But they were adamant that they should stay around. And I find it impossible to be in a room with people and not involve them. So it was great that they did. It led to it being a band experience and a band record.”
Something definitely seems to sparkle when these four men get together. Formed in London in 1988 after James joined Albarn, Coxon, and Rowntree’s band Circus (briefly renamed Seymour before settling on Blur), the group arrived just as the Madchester scene was on the outs. Influenced by the scene’s baggy beats as much as The Kinks’ and The La’s’ vivid storytelling, the band’s shoegaze-y pop sound and debut single “She’s So High” felt like the start of something new.
Debut album Leisure landed in 1991 to mixed reviews, but in 1993, the band released Modern Life Is Rubbish, a critically acclaimed record Albarn penned after a trip to America sparked concern about globalization and the loss of British identity. Twenty years on, some things remain the same.
“I still think it’s rubbish," he offers, anticipating the question. “I never hated America, I was just feeling like we were being totally consumed by it. But I’ve spent so much time there over the last 10 years, I’ve done a lot of coast-to-coast tours and met a lot of people. My relationship with America has matured, to say the least.
Next came Parklife, which cemented Blur as indie darlings, igniting the UK Britpop chart battles of the mid-'90s and a 20-year rivalry with Oasis’ Gallagher brothers. In the UK, years of Conservative rule were coming to an end, as Tony Blair’s Labour party won a landslide general election in 1997. Britain was entering a new golden age, the economy was booming, and Albarn and his band were the face of Cool Britannia. Three albums would follow – The Great Escape, Blur, and 13 – before things started to go wrong. Coxon’s alcoholism and band in-fighting ultimately were the cause of their initial split.
There have been enough reunions since then for the band to work through their issues – the wisdom of age, perhaps, healing old wounds.
“We all have our own stuff. But we're kind of, you know, like a staggered start on a steeplechase…” Albarn jokes about the band dynamics today. “Sometimes it looks like one horse is carrying the same old shit. And then another one. But in essence, we can recognize it in ourselves and each other and we do the best we can to discard it at all times and just realize that it's an extraordinarily privileged position to be able to articulate something in your mid-50s that started with Graham and I when we were 12 and 13. It's kind of mad."
He pauses, processing for a minute. “It is a mad thing. It's a long time to be a friend.”
Amidst the melancholy, there are glimpses of early Blur on The Ballad of Darren. Produced by James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Florence + The Machine, The Last Dinner Party), the album is named after a longtime crew member who was forever asking Albarn when he was going to “finish that song.” The track in question is album opener, “The Ballad,” but it’s second single “St. Charles Square” that will best serve lifelong Blur fans looking for a glimpse of past magic. In recent interviews, Alex James admitted it was the moment when he and Albarn started "bouncing up and down” in the studio, feeling “amazing."
“'St. Charles Square' sounds like a band all playing together, playing loud and discordant, which is exactly what we were when we started,” Albarn agrees. “Whether it will be Colchester Arts Centre or Wembley next weekend, it's the same four guys. No frills attached. It's something that's there in us. It's like a flame that hasn't been extinguished, and we're fueling it at the moment.”
Also fueling Albarn during this period has been personal change. After living for the bulk of his adult life in West London, he has made a permanent move to a very big house in the country – a remote part of Devon, to be precise, on England’s southwest coast.
Album track "Avalon" (named after the mythical island from Arthurian legend, supposedly based in a similar part of the world) reflects the move. "What’s the point in building Avalon/ If you can’t be happy when it’s done?" Albarn asks reflectively on the track.
“'Avalon' is the most relatable to where I live now, in the deep countryside, but near the sea,” he tells me. “Just this whole idea that you make that decision to relocate and once you find yourself there on a dark night where there's no light whatsoever and nobody in a two-mile radius, you have to be at peace with yourself. You created this fantasy world, so you have to be at peace within it. Otherwise, what's the point?"
''IT’S A FLAME THAT HASN’T BEEN EXTINGUISHED,
AND WE’RE FUELING IT AT THE MOMENT.''
Before the big move, much of Albarn’s professional life was spent in the hallowed Studio 13, under London’s Westway, where the bulk of his work with Gorillaz and recent Blur albums were recorded. The move to the seaside brings another change: an opening up of Studio 13 for others to use, relinquishing control of Albarn's musical haven. So much of his work has been influenced by his surroundings, the tower blocks of West London, the pace of the city, that it seems like a monumental shift.
“Yeah, it’s big. Very big. I really like being in the countryside. I just got to the point where I prefer that environment," he shrugs. “But yeah, even though I've had this place [in Devon] for 26 years, I never really thought about living there until a few years ago. So, yeah it is very different.
"But I haven’t exiled,” he smiles. “I still go to London all the time.”
Leaving the city has afforded Albarn more time for introspection. Alongside processing the collective grief we've all felt over the last few years, Albarn has dealt with loss on a more personal level. Frequent collaborator Terry Hall of The Specials died in 2022 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Albarn marked his passing with a simple, slowed-down piano version of Specials track “Friday Night, Saturday Morning," shared by his team on social media.
“It's hard to know what to do when they ask you to mark these things, other than to express it through music. Because apart from loving Terry as a human, he was one of my foremost heroes, really, growing up. It was a total shock," he says. “I hadn’t seen him for about two years before that but yeah, total shock, no warning whatsoever.”
Afrobeats pioneer and Albarn’s The Good, the Bad & the Queen drummer Tony Allen also passed away in 2020 at the age of 79. Albarn first met Allen in the early aughts after developing an interest in African music through West London record store Honest Jon’s. After Albarn namechecked Allen in a song, the Fela Kuti collaborator reached out, and so began two decades of music and friendship. Allen’s loss had a profound effect.
“I swooned on that one,” recalls Albarn “I lost my legs and I fell on the floor. These things happen, don't they? But then the postscript to that, which is a lovely thing, because he's always with me, is that I have a cockerel down in Devon who I've called Tony, and he is a very magnificent creature. He's an Andalusian cockerel. And I was in Toulouse doing a Tony Allen festival tribute thing, only a few weeks ago, and I was sitting in a park having cheese and a bit of wine in the afternoon before the show. And this cockerel, identical to my cockerel, just came out of the bushes, and started to cockadoodledoo,” he says jubilantly.
Does he believe in signs like that?
“Do I believe in them?!” he scoffs. "I don't need to believe in them – I'm absolutely convinced. That’s too much of a coincidence, know what I mean? Just a bit too much. But yeah, people like Tony were magical anyway, even when they were alive, so why wouldn't they be as magical now that they… I mean, Tony wouldn't see death as being in any way something that was going to get in the way of his communication with the cosmos."
It’s inevitable that at a certain point of life, loss becomes more prevalent. Albarn says that album namesake Darren represents the everyman: the guy who’s experienced it all and then some. Throughout his career, Albarn has been no stranger to using characters to represent ideas and social commentary, but never has a character felt so close to home.
As he traverses the second half of his existence, the frontman finds himself in a unique position. Unlike many of his Britpop peers he has continued to innovate through Gorillaz, building a fanbase within a new generation – the kind that saw Billie Eilish bring him out onstage during her headlining Coachella set. But with his teenage band, he’s preparing to sing 30-year-old songs back to stadiums full of mostly middle-aged people. You would think that the two roles would require different mindsets, to summon different things from within, one clad in retro Adidas, the other in a gold chain and baseball cap, but Albarn insists it’s not that deep.
“No, it’s all just me. It’s just like different… movies. It’s like being in The Archers and Crossroads,” he says, referencing two retro British soaps, one a radio program and the other a TV show. “Gorillaz is probably Crossroads.”
His work with Gorillaz, his solo efforts and side projects have undoubtedly been a blessing for Blur fans. Darren could have leaned entirely on old tricks like the fairground organ and classic Coxon riffs; but instead, we find Blur at a point where they are also still innovating, pushing the boundaries of what their band can be without losing any essence of what made them one of the greatest British groups of the last four decades.
“Getting back into doing these Blur shows, it’s like I’m in some mad, weird world – the sort that kind of resembles 1993 but isn’t. It’s 2023. And there are a lot of kids there as well; God knows what they think of it!”
The warm up-shows to date have had rave reviews. Albarn has dusted off his retro sportswear, and woo-hooed along to “Song 2” just like no time has passed. His knees, however, are prone to giving him a reality check.
“The power of the audience sometimes just lifts me up and I start doing ridiculous things that I shouldn't be doing as a 55-year-old, like jumping up five feet in the air. I haven't yet got so carried away that I've thrown myself in the audience, but I can sort of envisage some tragic leap that doesn't quite make it into the audience," he laughs. “And I end up dead… or impaled.”
In the past, he has trash-talked musicians like The Rolling Stones’ desire to still be "singing '(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction' when you’re pushing 80." While none of the band are yet in danger of following in Jagger’s footsteps, his scorn does suggest there’s a time limit on how long Blur will continue to write and perform.
“I’m really proud of this album,” Albarn says, considering what the future might hold. “Obviously, part of me would like to think that I could do that again. But I think also, part of the reason why it's worked in this case is that there has been that sort of mad gap. But I'm also aware of, you know, that... Yeah, I mean, maybe,” he says, noncommittally. I don't know, I just don't really like doing things for too long."
A week before our chat, musicians from around the world were gathered for Glastonbury festival, not too far from where Albarn calls home in the land of Arthurian legend. The talking point of the weekend was Elton John’s career-spanning final performance. Albarn, a frequent attendee of the festival, was away touring, but managed to catch snippets on TV.
“I missed Elton because they weren’t showing the right channel in my hotel room,” he says of the star, who he knows and admires greatly. He then turns excited: “I did get to see someone else I respect hugely, though. He’s maybe one of my greatest influences – that is Yusuf/Cat Stevens, and he looks just so great. If I can feel that light at that age, I'll be so pleased with myself!”
There is clearly, then, a desire to keep doing what he’s doing – a perpetual need to use music as an outlet for his pain and a consideration about what that will look like as the years don’t stop coming. Though perhaps to channel Cat Stevens, it may not include him bouncing around the stage as much.
“You know, hopefully by that point, I won't need to anymore,” he smiles. “The gravity will have firmly established that that is no longer a possibility. Unless, by that point, it is completely acceptable for people of that age to have bionic legs.”
''THERE IS CLEARLY SOME MAGIC THERE THAT WE CAN’T TAP INTO
UNLESS IT’S THE FOUR OF US IN A ROOM.''
What seems to ever be a possibility is the other Britpop heavyweights, old rivals Oasis, reforming for Glastonbury. Albarn himself has already put money on that stubborn reunion finally becoming reality.
“Well, of course they were gonna,” he says nonchalantly. “The road is clear for them to do that now. I think that’s great. You know what I mean? Obviously I expect an excellent new record to accompany it." He grins.
Whether the Gallaghers can get it together or Blur can make it to the eras of John and Stevens remains to be seen. For now, fans old and new can be thankful that Blur have succeeded not just in reforming to play old songs, but to offer 10 new tracks that once again channel Albarn's personal sorrow into something quite exquisite.
Back in 1999, critics were unsure about the band's new sound and a shunning of their earlier, poppier work. The Blur or 2023, however, knows both the power of both the stadium-filling singalong choruses and the intrigue of the new. It's change that inspired Albarn to write these songs, but only through rejoining his bandmates were they able to find their true form.
“I suppose that's why it is a beautiful thing, you know,” Albarn says finally, of the reunion. “The outcome is so surprising to us as well really. It shouldn't necessarily work, but there is clearly some magic there that we can't tap into unless it's the four of us in a room. It's like having a magic solution. You have little vials and you take a pipette and drop certain things into it and only with the right kind of combination does it turn the color of Blur.”
Portraits by Reuben Bastienne-Lewis
Live photos by Phoebe Fox, Tom Pallant,
and Jim Dyson/Getty Images
Illustration by Steven Fiche
Editing by Ben Kaye