Legendary Britpop band Blur released “The Narcissist,” the lead single for their upcoming album “The Ballad of Darren,” on May 18. The album, set to release July 21, will be their first in eight years and ninth overall.
It would have been easy for the band to “mail it in,” given their established status and that frontman Damon Albarn released his eighth studio album as virtual band Gorillaz earlier this year. However, the band seems to have approached the album’s production with a grizzled intensity that is produced only through genuine passion for the process.
“The older and madder we get, it becomes more essential that what we play is loaded with the right emotion and intention,” guitarist Graham Coxon said in an interview with Pitchfork..
The song — probably more appropriate for headphones than the clubs the band built their name in — reflects the care put into it, sounding genuinely fresh and mature.
It starts with a simple, doubled or delayed lead guitar riff in stereo left, which is soon joined by a soft, swelling synth pad and mono rhythm guitar play upon the synth’s maturation. Albarn’s vocals, softer than may be expected by fans of Blur classics like “Song 2” and “Girls and Boys,” come in soon after, doused in reverb, delay and vocal correction.
After a brief verse section, an instrumental interlude characterized by the introduction of a simple drum machine beat carries the song into another verse section, with the drum machine being joined by bassist Alex James’ bass play.
Further fleshing out his characterization of the song’s protagonist, Albarn, as ‘The Narcissist,’ completes the picture started with the first verse’s lyrics, “Looked in the mirror / So many people standing there / I walked towards them / Into the floodlights,” through the first lyrics of the second verse, “I heard no echo.”
Delineating the emotional upending provided by a disproving of one’s delusions, Albarn then depicts what he found in “the floodlights.”
“There was distortion everywhere,” he sings — rather gently considering his words. “I found my ego / I felt rubato standing there.”
A second instrumental interlude follows the second verse section, continuing the trend set by the prior verses. Drummer Dave Rowntree’s live drum play largely replaces the drum machine, though the former’s hat continues to play alongside Rowntree’s kick and snare. Despite being a little — intentionally — muffled, the drums literally imbue the instrumental with a new sense of life.
In the final verse section before the first chorus, Albarn describes finding his grounding in another, alike person.
“Found my transcendence / It played in mono painted blue / You were the Pierrot / I was the dark room,” he sings, joined early on in the verse by a playful piano part. For listeners not particularly well-versed in French pantomime, Pierrot is a stock male character described as a sad and lovesick clown who uses comedic endeavors to hide his true feelings. Due to this, Pierrot is cited by sources such as Germany.info as “a symbol for putting on a mask to hide one’s true feelings or opinions.”
Here, he likens himself to a dark room where this Pierrot can openly express themselves without fear of judgment, as their darkness and blue is shared, “play[ing] in mono.” Not only beneficial for this other person, this relationship provides Albarn with new footing — “transcendence” — after a drastic upheaval of his prior worldview.
Though this Pierrot is obviously appreciated for what they give Albarn, he worries about the longevity of what they have. Making use of chest voice, head voice and everything in between, he sings during the chorus, now supported by Rowntree’s complete, unmuffled kit, “I’m a shine a light in your eyes / You’ll probably shine it back on me / But I won’t fall this time / With Godspeed, I’ll heed the signs.”
Having earlier reminisced about meeting this Pierrot and now either referencing his learned understanding of him or from prior relationships, Albarn looks toward the exit while half-heartedly enjoying what he has now.
The second verse retains most of the first verse’s instrumental features, with sporadic rhythm guitar strums being the only distinct difference. “I took the acid … / I could not tear myself away / Became addiction / If you see darkness, look away,” he sings during it. This verse, more ambiguous than the other two, could be interpreted as him lamenting how he immersed himself too deeply into this Pierrot, becoming first addicted and now averse to him. Or, a listener could interpret these lyrics as Albarn being ashamed due to substance abuse beginning to color his darkness and wishing to obscure his lover’s view of it — though an unobstructed view of each other’s darkness originally brought them pleasure.
After another similar chorus part, a brief instrumental interlude carries the song into the final verse, which features little to no rhythm play, creating a sense of space. As though this change in instrumentation correlates with a slight opening of Albarn’s perspective and heart, he croons “Oh, glorious world / Connect us to love / And keep us peaceful for a while.”
The final chorus’ near-verbatim repetition of the first choruses’ lyrics emphasizes that this more open perspective doesn’t mean complete commitment or faith that this relationship will last. Its differences from the first two choruses further this perspective, as the major difference between this one and the others is Albarn ad-libbing “for a while” after the first two lines.
Playing in both ends of the spectrum of commitment, Albarn ends the song having never committed to even non-commitment. On brand with what is expected of a narcissist, Albarn doesn’t fully devote himself to a relationship due to valuing the safety of his self-image over what could be and the feelings of his Pierrot.
Like how their initial embrace of Britpop empowered them to outlast their peers in “The Scene That Celebrates Itself,” Blur’s ability to metamorphosize their sound proves itself yet again. Frontman Damon Albarn’s understanding of pop conventions allows him to create a distinct, almost regional, divide between his work with Gorillaz and Blur despite both groups having albums that have been or will be released this year.
Given that the band hasn’t released an album in eight years, most fans will likely be satisfied and/or surprised by the upcoming album “The Ballad of Darren” regardless of its content. However, “The Narcissist” backs up the band’s shunning of redundancy and complacency, providing hope for fans with loftier expectations and thus keeping all fans “peaceful for a while.”
June Min is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the spring 2023 quarter. He can be reached at email@example.com.