Review of Ultravox, LAMENT (Chrysalis, 1984). Tracks: White China; One Small Day; Dancing With Tears in My Eyes; Lament; Man of Two Worlds; Heart of the Country; When the Time Comes; and A Friend I Call Desire.
Though the album came out in 1984, Ultravox’s LAMENT is as relevant today–perhaps more so–than it was then, at least in terms of its themes.
Considering the position that China now occupies in the world, especially when compared with its third-world status 1984, it’s hard not to wonder if Midge Ure had more than a bit of the prophet in him. From Pale to Pink, from White to Red, the road toward totalitarianism is a slippery one. Though Ure was probably thinking of Margaret Thatcher’s horrific betrayal of the people of Hong Kong on the first track, “White China,” he might well have been writing about the Red Chinese, the Nationalist Chinese, or the Koreans of 2017. Or, he might have been talking about Britain and America, wrapped in Asiatic imagery. It was, after all, 1984 (que Orwell. . . .)
My guess is that long-time Ultravox fans were a bit disappointed by the album as a whole when it appeared on April 6, 1984. After all, VIENNA and RAGE IN EDEN might very well have been the high points of what was then called “New Wave,” certainly New Wave with a proggy feel. Like the album before it, 1982’s QUARTET, LAMENT is much less open and expansive, the production a little too heavy at times. Still, in hindsight, LAMENT nicely concludes the best of the Midge Ure-era of the band as the follow-up, U-VOX proved a disaster in terms of music, lyrics, atmosphere, and production.
Track two, “One Small Day,” offers the continuing theme of courage. Indeed, even behind its poppish veneer, it’s song that demands fortitude, a Stoic fortitude, against whatever odds the world and life throw against you. “How many times have you let depression win the fight?”
“Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” suggests that our hero in the second track failed, allowing the past to command the present. The past both tortures and tempts, lulling us into a false sense of what was, no matter how cloudy the memory.
As if to drive the point home, the music as well as the lyrics dive into a total depression on the fourth song, “Lament.” The mood of the song pervades the entire album, not surprisingly.
“Man of Two Worlds,” track five–or, in the old days, the first song of side two–finds solace in a romanticism of old battles waged for dignity and freedom. We stand by the old stones. A Celtic goddess stands with us, and she cries in and for our agonies.
Whatever the outcome of the previous battles of men and gods, we find our strength in the “Heart of the Country.” Yet, Ure warns, don’t be deceived by the right words used for the wrong things. Is it all a charade, the politicians and war-mongers riling up the populace? Clearly, a fine line separates patriotism and nationalism. We cross it at the peril of all.
The penultimate song, “When the Time Comes,” begins with church-like invitation but then enfolds the listener in a chaos of confusion. “It’s just like you to scorn.”
The final track, “A Friend I Call Desire,” reaches a musical peak in terms of tone and composition. “You live for love, I long for it.” A radical interplay of guitar, bass, and keyboards, the song reveals the band at its absolute best, especially with the tighter, shorter-form songs Ultravox had only recently embraced. “My enemy, desire. Caressing me, desire.” Again, Ure continues with the themes of Stoicism that so define this 1984 album. Do you control your emotions, or do your emotions control you? This order of reason and emotion is as much about a people as it is about a person.
Have we gone from pale to pink, from white to red? Does western civilization even remain? Have we traded our reason for our desires, our intellect for our lusts, our soul for paltry possessions? And, better yet, do we even know we’ve lost something? And, still better, do we even know we should know we’ve lost something?
I’m truly sorry that Ultravox didn’t progress after LAMENT. Perhaps it’s a fitting end to an incredible run of four extraordinary albums. By 1984, the world had become one of too many remixes, too many videos, and too many dollars chasing dollars. Though only separated by four years, the world of LAMENT seems radically different from the world of VIENNA.
I personally lament the loss of the classical Ultravox, though 2009’s RETURN TO EDEN surprisingly recaptured the magic of that golden moment, twenty-five years past.
However imperfect, this piece is dedicated to Kevin McCormick–who introduced me to the music of Ultravox in the autumn of 1986.