|2. Fields Of Fire|
|3. Fallen Angel|
|5. Guns And Arrows|
|6. Lay My Body Down|
|8. Live Forever|
|9. Trail Of Tears|
|10. May Your Good Lord|
|11. The Maker|
Midge Ure's solo career did not begin with a radical departure from his work in Ultravox. The Gift, released in 1985, showed Ure crafting vocal and musical melodies which could have fit fairly easily on either Lament or U-Vox, the two UV albums which surround it chronologically (see the Tentative Reviews archives for further details on this album).
By 1996, quite a bit had obviously changed. Ure had by this time been gone from Ultravox for nine years, and was generally free of fan expectations that he release new albums in imitation of his older style (and, besides which, a version of Ultravox had by this time emerged without him -- see the Tentative Reviews archives to discover the details of their misadventures). The fact that Ure was no longer a "hot commodity" on the pop singles market by 1996 may also have been a factor in this change, with market pressures no longer pressing him to write another "Reap The Wild Wind" (which isn't to say that such pressures were entirely absent, but that's another story). And the fact that he'd taken five years off since Pure, his previous album, obviously allowed him the time for a creative rethink.
Whatever the case, Breathe is a rather different album from The Gift. Gone are the synth-heavy passages that marked Ultravox in their heyday, and with them most of the new-wavish ambience [... yes, that's what I meant to say ...] that the group had become legendary for. Instead, we have ... lyrical folk passages and Celtic influences galore.
So as not to belabour the point too much, it's fair to note that the transition from 1985 to 1996 is not absolute, and certainly does not rule out the "carry-over" of certain aspects of Ure's work from one period to the other. The spiritual/mystical lyrics are still there in abundance, and Ure's primary ability with regard to songwriting is still his skill in crafting "hooks". But some aspects of his focus have clearly changed.
It might be fair to suggest that the "intelligent adult art-pop" market (as successfully explored by Peter Gabriel, in particular) was the designed audience for this release, in contrast to the younger (if still intelligent) audience that Ultravox had targeted in earlier years. Perhaps Ure was simply writing for an audience which was maturing with him. Or perhaps not. But, one way or another, the change in demographics seems an important point here.
This album also features Ure working with a substantial number of collaborators, including three string-men who have a considerable role to add to the overall value of the album. Eric Bazilian, formerly of the Hooters, contributes mandolin on most tracks, adding some measure of credibility to the Celtic endeavours. Robert Fripp provides one of his legendary guest appearances on "Guns And Arrows", bringing that particular track much higher than it would have ascended on its own. And Shankar's role on "Live Forever" allows that track, as well, to attain a truly special quality.
The album begins with the title track, which actually has the strongest similarities to Ultravox of all the tracks here -- it might be fair to say that this essentially has the skeleton of a Ultravox number, lacking the trademark instrumentalism of the Currie/Ure team. The song begins with a sampled "breathing" element, the intention of which seems vaguely erotic and not entirely pleasant. Ure's vocals are heavily drenched in spiritual reference, with the "breathe to make me breathe" line suggesting a "basic lifeforce" metaphor within the lyrics. On the whole, the track is handled well enough, getting the album off to a decent enough start. [Obvious Gabriel similarities: the instrumental effects in mid-song sound vaguely similar to "Come Talk To Me", the bass/drum mix sounds somewhat similar to that favoured on his poppier numbers, the entire theme of the track is similar to "Kiss Of Life".]
With this half-glance to the past then completed, the album then embarks on its new direction. "Fields Of Fire" is written in a specifically Celtic/folk style, telling a story of domestic violence leading to mental anguish (and using the titular metaphor to full effect in the chorus). Ure deserves some congratulations for his willingness to attempt this form of music -- on the other hand, not every aspect of the song comes off as wholly convincing. The chorus is extremely well done, the verses somewhat less so -- and, in a lyrical folk genre, this can't help but damage the song's quality somewhat. The pipes and off-kilter drumming of the instrumental segueway give it a few more points to its credit, but the entire thing relies a bit too heavily on the strength of its chorus.
This reviewer could take or leave "Fallen Angel", personally. The lyrics involve a rather patronizing inspirational message to an unknown figure (a prodigal son? a lover with a troubled past?), and have something of a prosaic quality about them. The music that goes along with this is "okay", but again relies too heavily on the chorus. The lyrics to the second verse could have been taken from one of Jon Anderson's recent solo albums, and I don't mean that as a compliment. A Celtic instrumental passage adds a bit to the overall value of the track, but it still isn't anything essential.
"Free" possesses some of the most inane lyrics on the release, but redeems itself somewhat (i) with some interesting instrumental embellishments, and (ii) by the fact that the lyrical development is curtailed in favour of chorus repetition (this might not be a good thing normally, but ...). The slightly funk-oriented beginning of the song, along with the moderately abrasive tones used in the background of the first verse, keep things fairly interesting on some levels -- the brevity of the guitar solo is slightly disappointing, but it still merits some praise. A "good enough" song, in other words.
Ure takes his Celtic-inspired influences to their highest fruition on "Guns And Arrows", a romantic/heroic lyric which features something of a unusual use of physical imagery in the chorus -- unconventional, but it works rather well (this song also features a prominent role by Sally Dworsky -- not quite as good as Ure, she is at least on the same general playing field). The song really takes off, however, via Robert Fripp's soundscape contribution at the middle and end of the song -- the dissonance is kept to minimum, befits the nature of the song, but it still works very well (and the combined efforts of Fripp and Bazilian on the intro are interesting enough, for those familiar with both artists).
"Lay My Body Down" is another album highlight, with epic lyrics depicting the downfall of a noble figure, and his dying wish to have all of his earthly treasures brought to him one final time. It might not be unfair to refer to this as "Lucky Man" sung in the first person, in terms of the theme. The lyrics, not focusing on mundanities, are better than before, and the music has a rather "full" sound about it. Ure's own guitar solo (perhaps the only one on the album) is a highlight as well.
A marginal downturn is taken with "Sinnerman", wherein Ure's voice doesn't quite match with the Celtic intro quite as well as it could. The music and spiritual inclinations of the number add up to a fairly good song, but not terribly much more (though the odd, presumably Gaelic vocals towards the end of the track add to its value somewhat too).
The album then scales stronger heights again with "Live Forever", another Celtic-oriented track with a strong level of mystery in the lyric, and a vocal role by Ure that easily counts as his best moment on the album. Ure's messianic lyrics and Shankar's trademark violin sounds work hand-in-hand to create a beautifully atmospheric number. The mere presence of this and "Guns And Arrows" on the album should be enough to convince the listener that Ure still has the ability to equal his best work, even if he doesn't always do so.
The last three songs on the album are all good as well, but slightly less so. "Trail Of Tears" has a keyboard/percussion intro that once again brings Gabriel similarities to mind. This track deals with the same general romantic themes of many of the earlier numbers -- the track itself runs smoothly enough, but Ure ruins the effect somewhat by singing it in a vaguely "classic rock" style. The vocal harmonies at the end are interesting enough, even if they don't have a direct impact on the grade of the track.
"May Your Good Lord" is written in Ure's classic "pure pop" style, albeit in a manner somewhat removed from the older Ultravox method. This slightly dance-oriented number features a general condemnation of political self-interest among global elites, seldom focusing on any direct images (with the exception of "from killing fields to desert sands"). The pipes in the outro contribute to the value of the track. A fairly high- quality pop number, if a bit contrived in some manners.
And, finally, the album ends on a deliberately mysterious note with "The Maker", seemingly telling the story of humanity waiting for the moment of its destruction/redemption (references to an "evil cloud" coming to absolve humanity of its more malicious elements would seem to verify this interpretation). The accordion and military drum elements of the intro set the tone for much of the track -- which is to say, the music is both slightly absurd and oddly appropriate at the same time. Fripp's role is somewhat more limited here than before; he only becomes noticeable at the conclusion of the track, providing a quiet, ambient outro.
Such is Breathe. This album seems slightly constrained by the genre which Ure chose to work in, but the overall quality of the material still remains quite high -- occasionally reaching the classic levels of beauty/clarity which Ultravox were known for in their prime. I'm not certain if I'd recommend this over The Gift -- it might be best simply to note that both albums showcase Ure's strengths in some form of musical output. And they're both certainly better than Ingenuity and Future Picture.
(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 6 May 1998)