A beautiful beast of a comeback from 20th century superstars that never were.
Paul Whitelaw 2012-09-20
The 20th century superstars that never were, Ultrasound disbanded acrimoniously in 1999 after some hugely promising singles and a frustratingly inconsistent debut album. Now, 13 years later, they've defied the odds by patching up their differences to stage a comeback that, miraculously, delivers on their original potential.
This is the urgent, determined sound of a band of self-styled outsiders making sure that their second chance isn't wasted. A concept album of sorts – about both Ultrasound themselves, and the parlous state of the nation – Play for Today picks up where they left off. It fuses the misfit glamour of Suede and Pulp with the roaring bombast of 70s Who. The result: a monolithic assault of punkish, charity shop space-rock.
The crucial difference this time is that they've tempered their excesses and focused their craft. That's not to say that they've embraced subtlety: permanently situated in the centre of a wind tunnel, they remain gloriously melodramatic by the standards of most bands. But Play for Today is above all else a collection of consistently fine-tuned anthems, suffused with passion, intelligence and a kind of heroic, life-affirming despair.
Defiant opener Welfare State is a bitingly self-referential mission statement (“We've been away for a while, but we were never in style”) pledging compassionate support for an underclass abandoned and demonised by right-wing politics. The soaring Beautiful Sadness is Ultrasound in essence: a romantic celebration of alienation, musically reminiscent of the World in Action theme tune (that's a compliment).
The pretty, bittersweet jangle of Nonsense is succinct and subdued by their standards, whereas Twins, Deus Ex Natura and Long Way Home find the band at their most widescreen. The album closes with another pair of unabashedly OTT epics, Glitter Box and Sovereign, the latter of which sounds like Coldplay with cojones (again, that's a compliment).
There's a sense of sweet poetic justice about a band of thwarted oddballs managing to produce such a magnificent album, over a decade after they seemingly threw it all away. Play for Today is a beautiful beast.