As of mid-2012, nostalgia for sounds specific to the 1980s shows little or no sign of fading to grey. While it may be perfectly reasonable to assume that the reunion of an actual ‘80s group would be cause for critical celebration, this is not necessarily the reality. Brilliant, the latest from Ultravox, is ultimately one for the fans, and it’s unlikely to win over those for whom (relatively) recent releases by M83 and Destroyer represent the best in new music.
The record succeeds on its own terms, but those terms raise at least one serious question: Should musicians stay stylistically true to their own eras when embracing later trends might mean a high risk of failure? (And one should probably draw some distinction between art and commerce here.) Brilliant could have been released, note for note, 30 years ago – or, alternatively, played today for some unsuspecting 30-year-old synth-pop novice, who would have absolutely no trouble believing the contents were recorded in 1982, would in fact have more difficulty believing otherwise. There is not a single lyric which could not have been written and sung in the early ‘80s. Nor is there a single arrangement or instrumental choice which would have turned anyone on their ears in the later stages of the Cold War.
Ultravox went through various line-up changes between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. The most significant of these, at least for purposes of getting a handle on the group’s sound, was the replacement of John Foxx with Midge Ure as lead vocalist for 1980’s Vienna. Gone were the edgy post-punk tendencies, but a certain Germanic influence lingered on, lending an icy, even arty quality to the proceedings, as the group embraced the pomp and bombast of the New Romantic movement with complete commitment. This proved to be the commercial apex of Ultravox, the same line-up now returning for the first time since the Reagan/Thatcher era.
Most of Brilliant follows the same basic template established on Vienna: hooky verse-chorus structures built around a few well-deployed keyboard notes, some additional synth or guitar ornamentation, drums that may or may not be fake, and vocals ranging from merely dramatic to Broadway-level theatricality. They throw a few curveballs here and there — some guitar-derived noise on “Hello”, Middle Eastern-mimicking strings on “Satellite” — but no genuine surprises. (So, don’t expect any dubstep interludes, or guest verses from Nicki Minaj.) Tracks are mostly mid-to-fast tempo, with the band slowing down for a couple of wistful ballads (“Remembering,” the lovely “One”), and eventually employing a more low-key vocal on the final track (“Contact”). Cheesy lyrics aside, these guys remain capable of strong hooks; songs like “Live” and “Change” function on a level of basic catchiness attainable only through some underlying intelligence for pop song construction.
Perhaps there is comfort to be taken in the universe of an album like this, where, for all intents and purposes, the last three decades never happened. This is Ultravox being Ultravox, with none of the winking irony one would find in La Roux and other revivalists; they appear serious because they are serious. Ure and company could probably release a record every year along the same lines and of roughly the same quality.
But how many more well-executed New Wave albums does the world really need, and when is it time for the wave to recede once more?