​Blur Set the Record Straight as Damon Albarn Admits "Modern Life Is Great"

Modern life has always been rubbish, but 30 years since Blur perfectly captured the times they were living in, 'The Ballad of Darren' aims for something more timeless

Photo: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis

BY Sydney BrasilPublished Jul 19, 2023

The present moment is fleeting, and Damon Albarn welcomes it. As he returns his attention to his most longstanding project, the goal isn't to reshape Blur for a new era — instead, he'd rather transcend time completely.

Sure, the band are still very much themselves on The Ballad of Darren, their first album in eight years. And while three decades have passed since they ascended to fame, they're not overly sentimental about the past.

"Strangely, somewhere, in some parallel universe … Modern Life Is Rubbish is a very modern concept," Albarn remarks, speaking with Exclaim! over Zoom from his Studio 13 in London. Like most artists worth their salt, he's more interested in talking about his latest work than reminiscing about the past.

Albarn describes Darren as the band's "collective psyche," despite writing the demos while on tour with Gorillaz. He's quick to credit his bandmates with making it "sound like a very legitimate Blur record," which is an apt observation. It doesn't sound like Britpop-era Blur, obviously — that's bound to happen with time and age — but their usual charm persists, especially in Graham Coxon's distinct guitar work.

"I write the same songs all the time, but it's what Graham puts in there, really," he says. "And obviously [Alex James and Dave Rowntree] as well. But particularly, there's something about the way Graham twists and turns around what I do that gives you that unique quality."

In part, this fuels the bandleader's belief that guitar music is resurrecting, even if it's currently being treated as a carcass to poke at. After going through "a really dire period," he believes rock has "got a bit more of its vitality back," as most genres, trends, and aspects of life tend to: "It's just these endless, huge, great loops going around."

A cyclical view of things would also explain why the prolific musician doesn't see Darren as a reunion record. This isn't the first time the group have disappeared and reemerged on their own terms, and Gorillaz just released Cracker Island earlier this year (and graced our March 2023 cover). His many interim projects have kept him from slowing down, and he interjects when I suggest that Blur are making a comeback.

"It doesn't really feel like a reunion," he argues. "We've gotten back together and really, really articulated something that feels entirely unique to us, which is the point of making music as a band in the first place." 

It's nothing new for musicians to be hesitant of the "comeback" title, but Albarn has a point. Blur drop in and out of hiatus as they please; it's not as though they've only existed in the '90s and now. Eight years between Darren and 2015's The Magic Whip is not much compared to the 12 between the latter and 2003's Think Tank. With sporadic performances sprinkled in throughout these periods, Blur have become a band that never truly goes away.

This is one of many privileges that comes with their level of fame, specifically in a streaming era, which demands artists release material at a hyper-rapid pace. It's also what afforded them the "luxury" of releasing Darren so quickly after its completion. According to Albarn, the marketing bureaucracy of it all didn't get in the way this time around, and a string of already-scheduled shows to tie the record to didn't hurt either.

The band recently finished a run of warmup gigs before two nights at London's Wembley Stadium, and have plotted stops across Europe, Japan and South America to follow. The musical rapport between Albarn, Coxon, James and Rowntree remains much the same, though there have been some upgrades. "It's still quite a similar dynamic, but everyone is way more tolerant and understanding of each other," Albarn offers.

It's a heartwarming notion, especially once he reveals what he expects each member to bring back to Blur: "Just empathy. Empathy is the most important thing when playing music." It speaks to his idea that Darren manifested "this strange 2023 version of bored kids from art school [who] grew up in the '80s."

This 21st century version of Blur won't be as easy to pinpoint as their pre-millennium selves. Even with Darren's retention of what makes them tick, some of their signature elements have been lost to time — namely, their usual lyrical references to technology.

Thematically, much of their '90s output is meant to encapsulate a time and place. Now, Albarn's songwriting has shifted away from capturing the present moment, in part to bridge a generational gap of relatability. "The problem with making references to technology is that, at some point, they're going to become obsolete," he says, calling early tracks "Advert" and "Popscene" "really weird."

"At the time, I thought, 'God, I'm really a bit odd. What, why am I so obsessed with these things? Certainly no way anyone else is singing about it at the moment.' And now it feels like, well, all I really was singing about was things that people are obsessed with now."

That's not to say Blur don't still have affection for their past, as two things can be true at once. They can find comfort in rehearsing 30-year-old songs, but use that energy to plot a course elsewhere. You can release your first record in nearly a decade, but stay right on pace. And, of course, modern life is rubbish — but if you ask Albarn, it can also be pretty good.

"It feels great. I mean, what can I say? Modern life is great."

Latest Coverage