June 1989. Heard in the line at the merchandise table in the Riverside Theatre lobby in Milwaukee, Wisconsin:
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Boy Teenager: Omigod. I'm so excited to see Howard Jones tonight.
Girl Teenager: Oh, totally. I love his new album.
Boy Teenager: Oh, totally, me too. I love "Those Who Move Clouds".
Girl Teenager: Oh, totally. That song's awesome. So mysterious and stuff? I wonder what it means?
Boy Teenager: Oh, totally. It must mean something? But my favorite part is the drums?
Girl Teenager: Oh, totally. The drums are so-
Boy Teenager: Like, totally...
Girl and Boy Teenager (unison): Like, BIG! Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha. Ha ha ha.
Girl Teenager: So, do we, like, know, like, who the opening band is?
Boy Teenager: Um, it's a band called Midge Ure.
Girl Teenager: Have you ever heard of them?
Boy Teenager: No, but I think I saw them on the dance charts when I was looking at Billboard at the library one day. Have you ever heard of them?
Girl Teenager: No. But I bet they're good, if they're opening for HoJo-
Random Guy in Front of Boy and Girl Teenager in Line: Midge Ure is a guy. One person. Not a band. He was in a band called Ultravox, but now it's just him.
Boy Teenager: Oh. Like, thanks.
Girl Teenager: Yeah, like totally. Thanks.
Boy Teenager: Did you detect rudeness?
Girl Teenager: Oh, totally detected rudeness.
Boy Teenager: Oh, my turn? Um, could I get the t-shirt with the album cover on it? (To Girl Teenager) Should I get a Midge Ure t-shirt too?
Girl Teenager: Nah. I mean, like, what if they suck?
Boy Teenager: I know. But the graphic on their t-shirt is awesome.
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They didn't suck. Excuse me. He didn't suck that evening. And Howard Jones, by the way, didn't play "Those Who Move Clouds" either, which was something of a letdown, but it was a good show at any rate. And, oh yeah, the boy teenager and the girl teenager had both decided about half way through the first song of Midge Ure's set - a rendition of an Ultravox song (we didn't know that at the time) called "Hymn" - that we both, like, totally, needed to get Midge Ure's album Answers to Nothing (i.e., the one with the really cool cover graphic, which included a Rembrandt-lit portrait of the artist along with logo of the word "Answers" by renowned artist Georges Mathieu - I so should have gotten that t-shirt!). The next day, we hit the Regency Mall in Racine and we each picked up a copy. And so began my love affair with the music of Midge Ure. That summer (and the next, and maybe even the next), I listened to nothing as much as Midge Ure's Answers to Nothing.
Moreover, via a used copy of an Ultravox singles collection, I was acquainting myself with Ure's earlier career (and, by extension, the earlier Ultravox albums with John Foxx singing lead), so that roughly ten years after his initial impact as one of the New Romantic movement's leading heart-throbs, he was reaching full media saturation the my messy teenager bedroom in Paddock Lake, Wisconsin. When my girlfriend (it was a long time ago) and I would talk about our new favorite singer of all time, we called him Midge, like we knew him from sophomore chemistry. (We were on a similar first-name basis with Robert from the Cure, Andrew from the Sisters of Mercy and Howard, the Jones. But we both had a hard time calling Charles Thompson III "Black". Somehow it didn't feel right.)
And if my parents recognized my Midge obsession as merely the most recent in a parade of pop star obsessions that had previously included (in chronological order) Rick Springfield, Men at Work, a-ha, and Chicago, my fanatical Midge-love was the first obsession that appeared to be contagious, rubbing off in a big way on my big butch brother Mike, who, these days, drinks a lot of beer, occasionally gets in bar fights, is well-known to curse loudly at the television during a Packers game, and, oh yeah, also regards Answers to Nothing as a classic (and absolutely refused to let me share the microphone when he sang Spandau Ballet's "True" on karaoke night. That bitch!).
All of which is to say that mine may not be the most objective opinion you're likely to hear about Midge Ure, though in my defense, I will say that I have largely been disappointed by his solo career since Answers to Nothing, which may well speak to the album's merits, but may more loudly speak to the fact that this record just happened to be my first (conscious) impression (he did co-write "Do They Know It's Christmas", which I'd loved several years earlier) of an artist I still very much admire. On the other hand, even if my opinion of the album is just a tiny bit biased, it has also had nearly twenty years to mature. By which I mean: okay, so Answers to Nothing isn't the greatest album of all time, or even the greatest album of the 1980s, or even the late 1980s (all of which I may have once asserted). But it is damned good.
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At that time (and even now), Midge Ure was better known for his black-and-white movie good looks (those sideburns... soooo pointy), and the angular, chilly romanticism of his vocals against the Teutonic backdrops of Ultravox's most famous compositions, an association perpetuated by his first solo album, The Gift, released in 1985 (before he'd actually left the band). But by the late 80s, the synthesizers and shoulder pads of new wave were giving way to a new generation of social consciousness, one less informed by Timothy Leary and his hallucinogenics, and more inclined towards Amnesty International letter campaigns, substituting dayglo for Ragstock khaki, and flower-power for messianic message-mongering.
Similarly, a lot of the higher-minded musicians at the time - Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Sting - were taking big time rhythmic and melodic cues from South Africa, which was the closest the 80s came to a Vietnam-style whipping issue. Of course, since the teenagers of 1988 (like me) had little to fear of being drafted to fight against Apartheid, even the most well-informed and well-intentioned social conscience music of 1988 lacked the visceral quality of, say, Jefferson Airplane's "Volunteers" or "Fortunate Son" by CCR. If the protest songs of the 60s came off agressively naive; the music of the late 80s sought change from a more knowing (and at times, cynical) point of view. The music was more polished and elaborate and commercial-sounding, and marked by a certain intellectual and even emotional distance.
It was in this context that Answers to Nothing was released, and it proved to be both Ure's most worldly album musically, and lyrically, his most earnest. Make no mistake, the lyric sheets of Ultravox's records as well as The Gift were already starting to resemble the working notebooks of a collegiate coffeehouse folkie (see especially his 1985 single "If I Was"), but on Answers, songs like the slow-boiling title track and lead single "Dear God" address the limits of faith, the cynicism of the televangelists and their political counterparts, and the dreaming of noble impossible dreams ("love for the lonely, food for the hungry, peace in a restless world") with all the moist-eyed sincerity of a Miss Universe finalist - not to mention a chorus so inspirationally catchy it's no small wonder that Dear Delilah doesn't have it in heavy rotation. Then again, maybe its lyrics, which among other things, question (however rhetorically) the existence of God, are just a little too skeptical. (Or maybe it's just because the song was never that big a hit, peaking only at #98 on the U.S. pop charts).
"Dear God" is a wonderful song - one of those hard-not-to-love songs that feel anthemic and important on the surface, but are, at heart, as harmless and generic as a Hallmark card. But Answers to Nothing has much more to offer - from its varied rhythms and panoramic arrangements, full of synthetic vs. organic juxtapositions of sound - a Big Country-style guitar riff dancing against Depeche Mode industrial synthesizer fill - which give even the most trivial of its songs, most of which are actually meditations on home and family, an epic grandeur. Ure contributes most of the sounds, but far more than on The Gift, he enlists some of his A-list pals - bassist Mark King of Level 42 (on "Sister and Brother"), drummer Mark Brzezicki of Big Country (and brother Steve on guitars), Japan's Mick Karn, and keyboardist Robbie Kilgore - to fill the songs out.
The most protest-ful song here, "Remembrance Day", which laments the conflict in Northern Ireland, is also the most minimal, textural, small-sounding - Ure's voice as chilly and distant and brittle as it was on even the most Krautish of Ultravox records. More often, his singing matches the bigness of the music, and on songs like the majesterial "Sister and Brother", a duet with Kate Bush, he aims for a space age update on the processional heroism and chivalry of the Knights of the Round Table; and true to the song's lyrics, Kate Bush proves equally heroic. "Just For You" is a fiery testament of romantic devotion, a series of boastful, Arthurian vows - Just for you, I would ford the oceans! I would cross all divides to satisfy your whims and notions! - interrupted only by an almost comical reassurance of steadfast love in the bridge: And when infatuation fades, I will still be by your side. Phew. That's good to know.
Meanwhile, the drums of "Take Me Home" are big and portentous against Ure's cinematic yearning for the familiar; while in "The Leaving (So Long)", he sings the part of a young man mapping out his own life, his own future and family, the home he'll make by leaving the home he grew up in. "The Homeland" drifts from nostalgia to lament as it conjures up visions of John-Boy Walton in sprawling 6/8 time. In fact, so many of these songs evoke the lion-hearted, big-dreaming, country-boy innocence of Richard Thomas dressed in overalls; but the music is always decidedly sophisticated, educated, produced and synthetic; that dramatic cover portrait, the Georges Mathieu graphic, betraying the artfulness, and the just-this-side-of-adult-contemporary classiness of the record.
I loved this record for a lot of reasons when it came out. I loved singing along with the endless, ruthlessly damning choruses of "Lied"; I loved the quick, soft-spoken verbal stabs in the verses of "Answers to Nothing"; the noble sentiments and sincere searching of "Dear God". But I think I also liked this record because it made me feel really smart compared to most of my peers, who were happy to skip an afternoon of school to catch the Monsters of Rock tour at Alpine Valley. I can't really say that loving Answers to Nothing makes me feel smart these days. If anything, it reminds me of a time when I was less knowing, less cynical; when I felt like I might have a bigger voice in the world than I do now; when I thought I could know just about everything if I tried; and when I thought listening to music this sincere could really change things.
That Midge Ure. They really didn't suck at all that night. Damn, I should've gotten that t-shirt!
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BECAUSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
"Answers to Nothing" by Midge Ure
Produced by Midge Ure
SONGS: Answers to Nothing - Take Me Home - Sister and Brother - Dear God - The Leaving (So Long) - Just For You - Hell to Heaven - Lied - Homeland - Remembrance Day
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