“New Wave” is kind of a funny genre title, isn’t it? What exactly does it really say about the music it labels? Really, it only makes sense in rear view – it’s a fond antiquity of the late 70s, early 80s, where there seemed to be something “new” happening, a “wave” of bright, quirky effects pedals and glossy rhythm sections, a breath of fresh, romanticized air.
Ultravox were riding the crest of that wave, breaking through in the late 70s with their self-titled LP, which featured production help from Brian Eno. But it wasn’t until frontman John Foxx decided to go solo and they found a replacement in keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist Midge Ure that the band steered full steam into more commercial waters, embracing the chilly synthesizers and drum programming that cemented the trademark Ultravox sound.
Although the band would continue to release music in various formations until 1994, the “classic” Ultravox line-up (Ure, drummer/vocalist Warren Cann, bassist/keyboardist Chris Cross, and keyboardist Billy Currie) would go on to release four albums together, beginning with 1980’s Vienna and ceasing with 1984’s Lament.
Return to Eden documents the live reunion of this most famous formation, capturing the band’s sold-out 2009 performance at the Roundhouse in London, which basically runs through their most famous tunes, almost exclusively favoring their slickest, shiniest material. Return delivers faithful, well-manicured versions that are virtually identical to their studio counterparts. Instead of injecting their old work with a sense of invigorated live urgency, Ultravox have somehow made their music even more tailored. The constant enthusiastic applause seems to suggest fans are simply happy to see they can still play their instruments.
They’re right about that. In the 26 years that have passed since Lament‘s release, Ultravox have failed to age a bit, and this fact becomes most clear when they manage to bring some human spark to the programmed cool. “Mr. X” sports the kind of bleak, spoken word minimalism that characterized a lot of likeminded ‘80s jams, but it’s the exception in that it’s actually good, casting a moody spell of fear and sensuality instead of eliciting unintentional laughter.
“All Stood Still” sounds fantastic live; it’s the sole song in the bunch that actually throbs with the energy of a rock band. Cann’s backing murmurings perfectly underpin Ure’s grandiose musings, and it features a riff worthy of a spy film theme held at CBGB.
No, Ultravox don’t sound like geezers reuniting to squeeze some cash out of the ‘80s indie pop revival. How dare you imply that? However, some of the tunes haven’t aged particularly well. A lot of this comes back to Ure – he’s still got his pipes, but on the artiest material, he still sounds like a less enigmatic David Bowie. At his worst (on big, cheesy tracks like “Passing Strangers”), he delivers his words like shards of a warped, British campfire ghost story, puffing up weak lines like “Running through memories like thieves in the night / Clutching emotions, holding too tight” with a semi-operatic plaintiveness that works against the music, which is generally engaging, even at its moodiest and most drawn-out.
Live albums are tricky. Fans who have heard these songs hundreds of times will know exactly what they’re investing in with Return to Eden. And that’s exactly what’s both most pleasing and disappointing about it. It’s a nice summation of their most popular work, but it’s also…well, nothing much more than that.
Ultravox are still high on that same old wave. For now, that’s good enough.