|1. Answers To Nothing|
|2. Take Me Home|
|3. Sister And Brother|
|4. Dear God|
|5. The Leaving (So Long)|
|6. Just For You|
|7. Hell To Heaven|
Answers To Nothing was the first album released by Midge Ure after the breakup of Ultravox, and his second solo album in total. On this release, Ure sets forth much of the blueprint for his subsequent career: likeable pop numbers that maintain Ultravox's pop sensibilities, but reflect Ure's increasing maturity. Whether this entirely a good thing is open to question, of course (personally, I think that Ure's been playing it a bit too safe in the songwriting department during the last decade), but he's been able to come up with a fairly consistent output in his chosen format. It's not quite as good as Ultravox's best, but it's worthwhile enough on its own terms.
AtN comes chronologically between The Gift (1985) and Breathe (1996), two albums which have already been reviewed in the Tentative Reviews series. The Gift was still strongly influenced by Ultravox's trademark sound; Breathe was something rather different, highlighting Celtic influences while generally avoiding the synth-heavy mannerisms of his former group. It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that AtN fits somewhere between these two works -- it's still dominated by synths (a fact which was undoubtedly helped by Ure's decision not to hire a drummer for the entire album), but the hook-laden-and-heavy keyboard textures aren't quite as evident. [Note: I am not forgetting the existence of Ure's Pure album from 1991 -- it's just that I haven't reviewed it yet.]
Answers To Nothing is an intelligent pop album. In my review for Breathe, I mentioned that Ure's target audience would seem to be the same people who regularly buy Peter Gabriel albums -- an examination of this album suggests that this was the case eight years earlier as well (there were times when I almost wondered if Ure was using some trademark RealWorld sounds in his percussion samples). Some songs on the album were clearly designed for the pop market which existed in the late 1980s -- they didn't quite succeed (not in America, at least), but the limits of radio programming guide some aspects of this venture (unfortunately). The music, as a whole, sounds compromised at times -- it certainly isn't as good as what Gabriel what doing at the time, in any event. For this, though, Answers To Nothing remains a fairly good album.
The album begins with the title track, which actually contains one notable "innovation" of sorts -- the programming seems abnormally fast, and one might be tempted to think the same of Ure's voice were it not for the occasional steadying inflection. This aside, the track is fairly good in a manner consistent with the rest of the album: a mixture of hope and skepticism in the lyrics, nice vocal intensity by the end, and a pretty good hook in general. Mark King gets in a decent guest bass line (vaguely similar to Tony Levin, actually), and the rhythm spotlight in the middle (where a guitar solo might normally be) is eclectic enough to be notable. All told, this is the outline of an Ultravox track better than most of those which appeared on U-Vox (1986).
"Take Me Home" is something of a disappointment, relying too heavily on lyrics of patriotic familiarity [Scottish, in this case] in an unsuccessful attempt at concealing the fact that it isn't much of a song. The lyrics are fairly conventional throughout, and the more impressive elements of the music never really integrate completely well into the "big picture" of the track. There's also an element of modern Genesis in the keyboard line, which might make the title a bit suspicious. A fairly interesting guitar tone appears at the end, but doesn't do much (and then the track abruptly ends).
"Sister And Brother" counts as something of a flawed gem. The atmosphere of the track is extremely good, with both Ure and Kate Bush somehow managing to get a strong sense of urgency out of their rather prosaic lines. The presence of UB40 members in the chorus in downright bizarre -- how odd, too, that Ure would be restricted to such a minimal vocal presence in his own song. The song has a longer instrumental section than do the others on the album, including a fairly proggy, Banksian keyboard section (presumably played by Kilgore). Some fairly good guitar parts are featured in the reprise section as well, and Bush's voice is utilized quite well. A triumph, but not without its limits.
"Dear God" was the leadoff single from the album [and the first track by either Ure or Ultravox that this critic ever heard, if anyone cares]. The sound for the verses is sparse and atmospheric; in the choruses, it turns into something rather more up-front and poppy (does anyone else remember John Farnham?). The actual song is no better than "fairly good pop", though the fact that the instrumental mid-section actually develops into something interesting merits a few extra points. The percussion and bass effects are fairly good as well. Those with an aversion to all things spiritual might want to give this one a miss; those who can tolerate such things might be able to find something of worth is this as well. It would have been a minor hit in a perfect world; in reality, though, it wasn't even that.
The first half of the album ends with "The Leaving (So Long)", a competely solo track that seems at its outset to be caught between conventional balladry and more interesting Gabrielisms. The minimal keys are a nice enough touch, the Celtic elements to the instrumentation are interesting, and the guitar solo in mid-song is pretty good ... but, sadly, none of these can entirely refute the fairly ordinary nature which the song takes at about halfway through. It's a good song, but not overly distinctive (and it could have been better).
"Just For You" isn't thematically different from many of the other tracks here, but it's still better. The music is much more atmospheric and moody than before, and Ure's vocal performance here is probably his best on the album (very, very haunting). The lyrics, a tad banal on their own, are fairly captivating when combined with the music. The song can't quite sustain the strength of the intro all the way through (Ure seems to run short on ideas partway through), but the strength of the performances at during the endgame section still carries it through. The guitar solo at the end helps to this end ... and ... isn't that the "Reap The Wild Wind" bass line, popping up here and there?
"Hell To Heaven" is one of the more forgettable tracks -- a naive look at divisions between the first and third world that seems a bit underwhelming musically as well (this changes a bit towards the end -- dare I call these guitar parts "Frippisms" -- but not by enough). "Lied" is essentially cut from the same cloth, though it eventually proves itself as being a bit more substantial by the end (perhaps the celtic pipe effects and the rustic-folk/sing-along vocal line in an otherwise "serious" piece adds to the interest level of the listener). "Homeland", following thereafter, is most notable for a Gilmour-esque guitar solo at the end; the bass effects are pretty good as well, and one might wonder if the reflective lyrics refer to Ure's own musical situation (the actual song in itself is only average, but the embellishments are fairly significant here). None of these three tracks are essential to the album however.
Finally, the album ends with a somewhat detached observation of man's destructive tendencies, with a divine force eventually coming to "purify" the earth. Some regular readers of the Tentative Reviews series might remember that the last song on Breathe was essentially about the same thing, and one wonders if Ure might be painting himself into corner with his recurring motifs. Ure sings the number very well, from a somewhat detached position; a slightly Hovian guitar line appears at one point, and the kind-of/sort-of African influence in the keyboard line might be a musical reference to "a return to the beginning" for mankind (though I may be totally off in this instance). Not an entirely satisfying end, it's appropriate enough for the project.
Answers To Nothing is an album which devoted Ure/Ultravox fans should admire, though probably not without some reservations. Newcomers might want to check out The Gift instead, though ... or perhaps Breathe, which is a more coherent statement of Ure's newer sound. Even better, of course, would be to check out Vienna and Quartet before moving on to the solo works.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 29 May 1998)