Thursday, December 03, 2009


I've been listening to a lot of Ultravox lately--and by that I mean the Midge Ure version of Ultravox; I know there are some fans who refuse to listen to anything after John Foxx left the band and they became more poppy, but while I can sympathize (former Blur fan here)…well, what can I say? I like them a lot. I haven't listened to the last album, U-Vox, because everyone says it sucks and I kind of have the feeling they're right (it has its defenders on amazon, but you know what those people are like). However, the four prime Ure albums--Vienna, Rage in Eden, Quartet, and Lament--are quite something else.

I'm a big fan of eighties synthpop in general, but what I specifically like about Ultravox is that they have a very particular sonic and lyrical aesthetic that remains surprisingly consistent through all four albums. There aren't many bands this cohesive in that regard.

The theme is a kind of very stark, black-and-white European expressionism (embodied nicely in the Anton Corbijin photo that graces the cover of Vienna), preoccupied with loss and isolation brought on by technology and by the modern world in general. Some song titles: "Private Lives," "Passing Strangers," "We Stand Alone," "Stranger Within," "Your Name (has slipped my mind again)." It's sort of summed up by the "Vienna" b-side "Passionate Reply:"

Painting scenes from magazines
Sucking breath from nicotine
Standing tall against the crowd we sigh
Taking turns on telephones
Living lives in other homes
Listening for the passionate replies

Listening for it, longing for it, but it's clearly not coming. Even songs like "Reap the Wild Wind" and "We Came to Dance," which seem to at least be groping towards some kind of redemption, are still overwhelmed by melancholy. And "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" may be romantic in its own way, but the whole point is the painful transience of this romance, what with the end of the world coming and all.

The ultimate example, for me, is "Mr. X" (also, appropriately, available in German as "Herr X") in which the spoken-word narrator becomes obsessed with an old photograph of a stranger. The atmosphere of claustrophobic dread is palpable, and if all this talk sounds sort of banally emo-y to you, you have only to look here (also: elsewhere) to see a level of sophistication that no mopey kids in black eyeshadow could even begin to approach.

You may see this slackening a bit in the band's last pre-U-Vox single, the non-album "Love's Great Adventure" (which could be read as a specific repudiation of the general attitude), but until then, it remains pretty consistent.

All of this is rendered even more effective by the use of synths. There isn't anything about synthesizers that makes them inappropriate for a more warm, cheerful sound (see Men without Hats, eg), but they can also be used to strip away the sense of humanity that "real" instruments bring and create a very icy sound. Ultravox pursues this concept about as far as it'll go, and they're the band I'll point to when anyone asks "what's the point of synthesizers?"

In any case, I recommend all four of the aforementioned albums.


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