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Inside Blur’s ‘most unexpected’ return

The U.K. legends reunite for their first album since 2015 — and even their own rhythm section sounds surprised at how much fun they're having

By Simon Vozick-Levinson

Blur, 2023. (Picture: Reuben Bastienne-Lewis)

This time last year, the four members of Blur had no plans to make an album together anytime soon. Then they heard that they might have a chance to play Wembley Stadium this summer. “You can’t say no to that,” says drummer Dave Rowntree, 59. “It’s the most iconic venue in the U.K., really. We certainly weren’t playing Wembley at the height of our so-called fame in the late Nineties.”

Since they split for the first time 20 years ago, the once and future bandmates have followed four very different paths. Singer Damon Albarn, 55, played Coachella this spring with his other band, Gorillaz; guitarist Graham Coxon, 54, recently published a memoir about creativity and addiction; bass player Alex James, 54, hosts a yearly food and music festival at his dairy farm in the English countryside; and Rowntree just put out his solo debut after a number of years working in local politics.

Blur aren’t broken up anymore — they’ve played a handful of reunion shows in the U.K. and abroad every few years starting in 2009, to the delight of their fans. In their home country, they’re arguably more beloved now than they were at their peak. But as of last year they’d managed to complete only one new album since reuniting: 2015’s The Magic Whip, an improbable coup that Coxon stitched together from a set of studio jams recorded between gigs in Hong Kong. “That’s eight years ago,” says James. “Even when we actually split up, it didn’t take this long to get back together again.”

When the four old friends met in London in early December 2022, anything beyond a single performance at Wembley seemed like it might be a stretch. “We were like, ‘OK, let’s see if we can bear to be in the same room as each other,’” James says. He recalls a less-than-encouraging conversation with Rowntree after that meeting: “He was really pale. He was like, ‘I don’t think it’s going to happen, mate.’”

But they pushed through to confirm their first tour in nearly a decade, built around two dates at the 90,000-seat soccer stadium, which will take place next weekend. What’s more, they went on to make a new album that feels just short of miraculous: The Ballad of Darren, out July 21.

“It really is most unexpected,” James says. “We didn’t know we were pregnant, and we gave birth in the supermarket car park. It’s like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a beautiful boy!’”

About a month after that tentative band meeting last December, the four musicians gathered at Albarn’s London studio with producer James Ford (Arctic Monkeys, Jessie Ware) to see if they could muster some new music for this summer. “It’d be a mistake to say we’re all older and wiser and all the old animosity is now relegated to the past,” Rowntree observes sardonically. “We love each other and we cannot stand each other, simultaneously, in the way that only family can. But to be honest, this time around, it’s been smiles and laughter since the start of the year.”

“As soon as we all sat down and started playing together, it was pure magic,” James agrees. “I think maybe singers and guitar players feel like they have to suffer, otherwise they haven’t turned up. But to me, Blur has always been an effortless, joyous, weightless kind of experience… All the years in the world fall away, and it’s just the four of us and the music in the room, and nothing’s changed since that first rehearsal 35 years ago.”

By the end of their first studio day this January, James estimates that they’d recorded the basic tracks for four songs. One of them, ‘St. Charles Square,’ was a sharp-toothed, Bowie-esque rocker (“I fucked up/I’m not the first to do it”) that got the bass player moving. “I was bouncing up and down with Damon,” he recalls. “We were both banging our heads. I thought, ‘Fucking hell, this feels amazing.’”

Other songs, like ‘The Narcissist,’ which became the new album’s first single, struck James with their open, emotional tone. “Damon has really evolved as a songwriter, and as a musician, actually,” he says. “He’s really wearing his heart on his sleeve on this record. It doesn’t feel like there’s any artifice there. It just feels pure and expressive.”

The sessions flew by easily. “I don’t know if you ever play tennis, but I’m a keen tennis player,” Rowntree says. “Some days it feels like your racket is six feet across. The more stupid the shot you play, the more brilliant it seems when it lands. The album kind of was like that. Everything we tried worked.”

This isn’t unusual for Blur, according to James. He thinks back to 1998, when they first met with electronic producer William Orbit to begin recording their tortured experimental triumph 13: “It was a really sweltering day in summer, and Damon had this tiny little studio in West London, no air conditioning. William had just come off of Ray of Light with Madonna, presumably in some incredibly plush studio in California. We were all crammed in there, and William was looking terrified in the corner. Damon wrote down some chords and we all started playing, and I saw William’s mouth drop. He said to me later, ‘How do you just conjure up an arrangement like that?’ And it’s like, ‘Well, just do it every day for 10 years. It’s easy.’”

Recording this year with Wembley as a rapidly approaching deadline gave the music some urgency. Rowntree compares it to the environment that produced Modern Life Is Rubbish, the 1993 breakthrough that put Blur at the vanguard of that decade’s Britpop movement. “It was a different kind of pressure at that time, coming from the record company,” he says. “But we had to do it and it had to be good and it had to happen now. That kind of pressure can either make you or break you.”

James is reminded of that era, too, from another angle. “It’s the smallest band we’ve had since Modern Life Is Rubbish,” he says. “From Parklife onward, there were brass sections, string sections, backing singers, orchestras, fucking percussion. It was insane.” This time, he continues, “we stripped it right back to the bare-bones essence. It really sounds and feels like a Blur record.”

Some songs on The Ballad of Darren call back clearly through the band’s history — perhaps none more than the opening track, ‘The Ballad,’ which is based on a 2003 solo demo by Albarn and dedicated to the band’s longtime head of security, Darren “Smoggy” Evans. “Damon had written a bit of a song a long time ago and never finished it,” Rowntree says. “Even though it wasn’t finished, Smoggy could see that there was a great song there. So when the two of them were alone, Smoggy would nag Damon repeatedly to finish this song. That became ‘The Ballad of Darren.’”

When they were done with primary recording, the bandmates went their separate ways. “Damon retreated to his house in Devon, in the west of England, out in the boonies — very isolated, quiet, beautiful part of the world,” James says. “He took his time there, and really dug deep on the vocals.”

“I don’t want to put words in Damon’s mouth about what the songs are about,” Rowntree adds. “But it certainly seemed to me it was very personal, and that’s when Damon’s at his best. That kind of melancholy reflective mood that he can brilliantly evoke — there was a lot of that.”

James and Rowntree are each logged onto Zoom from their own quiet parts of the world when we speak. In James’ case, it’s a barn at the Oxfordshire farm where he produces a line of cheeses in between band projects. “A lot of musicians do end up living on farms,” he muses. “I think it’s all those years living out of suitcases. You need to put down roots and calm down a little bit.”

These days, the bassist sounds grateful that Blur are not just reunited, but making new work that feels surprisingly vital. “It’s a very, very precious thing we’ve got, all those years of playing together,” he says. “But the fact that we have managed to make a record that we’re all really proud of gives this period of touring a whole new context. It’s not a nostalgia thing anymore.”

After Wembley, they’ll go on to more dates this year in Europe, Japan, and South America; any fans hoping for a return to the U.S., where Blur played a pair of memorable one-off shows at Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl in 2015, will have to wait for now. 

“Some of the songs that we know really well, we don’t even rehearse them, because you never want it to become tarnished with that kind of repetition,” James adds. “It’s just so lovely to be making that noise again.”

From Rolling Stone US.