Quartet (Deluxe Edition)
Of all of the 40th-anniversary reissues of Ultravox (Mk 2)'s albums - this is possibly the most intriguing and welcome one. It's not just because it puts a new shine (surprise! There's a disc of Steven Wilson stereo mixes) on the original recordings and places them all in an attractive box, but because it actually enhances and explains an album that may have confused and may even have disappointed audiences.
Having defined their brand of Euro flavoured synth-pop with their two preceding albums ( 'Vienna' in 1980 with its ubiquitous title track, and the edgier and (even) artier 'Rage in Eden' in 1981), Quartet in 1982 was neater, less experimental, and more (as singer/ guitarist Midge Ure would later describe), "polished".
Instead of returning to Conny Plank (Neu! Kraftwerk, Cluster...) at his studio in Koln, the band selected the stately George Martin to produce the record. Eyebrows were raised, but this was the act of a band aiming for something (if not commercially then definitely emotionally) bigger and grander. Despite the critical brickbats, Ultravox never shied away from the dramatic, and 'Quartet' is no exception.
The yearning opener (and first single), 'Reap The Wild Wind' is wistful ( Billy Currie's haunted orchestral keys, Midge Ure's somewhat doleful, although admittedly meaningless, lyrics). It's a gentle place to start. By contrast, 'Serenade' is one of the most excitable performances here. Lyrically, it appears to take swipes at the music industry (both Ure and the three original members of the band had experienced some highs and numerous lows since they'd started making music in the mid 70's), It is a song of experience and probably not one that should be taken at face value.
The guitars on 'Quartet' are far more prominent than ever before, 'Mine for Life' is as scratchy as Ure's former band the Rich Kids. It's an angsty and skeptical number ('I hate it all, but there must be more to hate than this') and the live version, which appears later on, is one of the best examples of the vigorous and emotionally jagged these songs were away from the album's sheen.
It's at this point on 'Quartet' that those alternative versions become a useful guide. The single 'Hymn' is one moment that the band's detractors would have a field day with, the chorus is a cut-up version of the Lord's Prayer. As in the Lord's Prayer. It's audacious, and obviously not at all religious but there's something a bit obvious... And the celestial backing vocals add to its naffness. Significantly better though is the early Monitor Mix where the songs power pop origins (loosely based on Glaswegian new wavers' The Zones number 'Mourning Star') reveal its unvarnished delight.
My concerns with 'Quartet' are all placed on the album's second side. The single 'Visions in Blue' (which goes for that slow start, the busy bit, the slow ending, y'know, like 'Vienna'! ), has always seemed lyrically colourless. Are there any clues to its meaning in the risible soft-focus porn of the video? Is this a tale of hidden love? I've never enjoyed the song enough to care. And although Steven Wilson has managed to breathe life into that middle section, on his mix of the track, the remainder of the song still lacks the intended drama.
'When The Scream Subsides' and 'Cut and Run' feel strained and lacking in any actual passion, they're competent but just dry. The instrumental Monitor Mix of the latter at least saves us from the finished version's rather mangled lyrics. The inclusion of the 12" extended version of 'We Came To Dance' is welcome. A spacious, pulsing number (an apparent swipe at New Romantics, written with two of the members of Visage, oh the irony). Ultravox knew how to reinvent their songs for the 12" format, so why not dance?
The finale 'The Song [We Go]' is another song I've never been able to engage with, certainly, the crash of the half-minute long drum solo has always been its saving grace (and revisited on the lengthier live version - also included here), but the actual song lacks depth and feels unfinished.
It's the sundry b-sides that reveal the imaginative meanderings of the band at the time. And that's an added joy - amongst the (virtually all), instrumental tracks, the intriguing 'Monument' would have made an eerily tense film soundtrack. The quirky 'Break Your Back' is relentless drums, scratched vocals and disconcerting noises. It's utter nonsense but huge fun.
Those aforementioned Monitor Mixes (CD only), show what roughly hewn delights many of the songs were before they were sculpted into their final versions. Looking into an artist's works in progress can be somewhat hit-and-miss. There's something of value in all of these sketches. Even, I confess, in 'Visions in Blue'.
The full concert (from 5 December 1982), which concludes this box set is a joy, it reveals that, as musicians that had spent much longer than their Blitz kid/new romantic peers playing live, they knew how to put together a fabulous live set. It is here that the 'Quartet' material finally gains that vital kick and sounds as rich as those 'Vienna' and 'Rage in Eden' numbers. Ultravox never got their due as a live band, which still irks slightly.
Following 'Quartet,' Ultravox would release only one more album as a four-piece (until the 'Brilliant' reunion nearly three decades later). That final 'Lament' (1984) would be self-produced, leaner, far less glossy, and way more focused than its predecessor. Maybe it was a deliberate move. Their return to the spirit of what went before. 'Lament' would of course contain moments of high drama as, with Ultravox, there would always be drama. Always.