Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Review of Ultravox's "Lament"

I posted this review Wednesday afternoon on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: "In stillness, in sorrow/Returns that softly sighing lament."

Ultravox is a British band that began their career in the late 1970s as a glam-rock band before switching frontmen in 1980 and veering in the direction of new wave synth. Unlike many new wave bands, however, they were never a singles-oriented dance-pop band. Their strength was in coherent album rock, so much so that they achieved a degree of crossover popularity with fans of progressive rock. Ultravox was fairly popular in the UK, with five of their ten studio albums reaching the Top Ten in the charts. They fared less well in the US, though, never climbing higher than #64. Based on the quality of their music, they deserved a better fate.

Lament was Ultravox's seventh studio album. As the title implies, it's not a happy affair, but the somber mood that pervades it only serves to heighten its elegance. There are sorrowful synths throughout, and themes of heartache, bleak futures and socio-political destruction. The title track alone is a slow, solemn ode to cycles of suffering and depression, complete with soft musical moaning heard behind the one-word chorus of "Lament". Sadness has seldom been so beautiful.

The most successful single from the album was "Dancing With Tears in My Ears", which reached #3 on the British charts. In this one, the song's protagonist and his lover dance and make love in commemoration of life's beauty, as they wait for the impending end of the world: "Dancing with tears in my eyes/Weeping for the memory of a life gone by". "White China", on the other hand, describes a different kind of fear and paranoia. It speaks to the residents of 1984 Hong Kong, as they await the transfer of power from Britain to the Communist Chinese regime: "When white turns to red/In the not too distant days/Will force and misery/Be the life you have to lead?" Clearly, we're a long way from happy 1980s dance pop here.

I want to talk about the different versions of the album available, because in this case, it matters. The original Lament, released on vinyl and cassette in 1984, was a lean, mean eight songs, with four songs on each side. Unfortunately, when it was first released on CD, they added three remixes of songs from the album's first side. This isn't a bad thing in and of itself -- I'm sure it was intended as a nice little bonus for Ultravox fans. The problem is they stuck two of them between the songs on Side One and those on Side Two, completely disrupting the flow of the album. Later versions fixed this problem -- there's a 1999 UK re-release that gives you the original album's eight songs, then follows them with seven bonus tracks (including two previously unreleased tracks). Then in 2009, they released a 2-disc "Remastered Definitive Edition" which features the original album on one disc, and eleven other remixes, instrumental versions, etc. on Disc Two. All of this other stuff is fine, but sometimes less is more. All of the extra material tends to distract from the cohesiveness of the original album.

Ultravox is one of the more under underrated bands of the 1980s new wave movement. If you're looking for a collection of catchy, hook-laden singles, Lament won't scratch that itch. But if you'd like to hear a soomewhat progressive form of synth pop that features more in the way of emotional depth than a simple "I love you, let's dance", this album is worth a listen.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars