I have to think that most our readers are familiar with the concept of “Desert Island Discs.” The premise is to make a list of albums (usually 10) that one would take if stranded on a desert island, forsaking all others (assuming, of course, that there was a sustainable means of playback for said albums).
For me, and many others, it is a daunting task – paring one’s collection to the 10 core works of musical art that could, hopefully, satisfy one over the remaining years. I would prefer to be given the option of creating 10 album-length compilations, therefore providing a much wider range of performances, but that’s cheating.
What if, instead of 10 discs, you could only take one? Are there any albums in your collection that could hold up over innumerable repeat plays, one that would provide lasting satisfaction the rest of your life? I’ve thought about it, and I think I have a few that, for my musical tastes, would qualify. I surprised myself, in that, despite the fact that progressive rock is my favorite genre, my selections do not include any in that style, nor are the candidates any of the influential albums from my youth. In this article I will focus on the second of those choices. The first, Bellybutton, by Jellyfish, was featured in Issue 181.
I think that, for me, to hold up under such challenging conditions, an album would have to incorporate the following elements: 1) a reasonably wide variety of moods and styles, 2) arrangements that are complex and interesting, and 3) high-quality engineering and production sufficient to satisfy my audiophile idiosyncrasies. A lot of records would qualify if two out of three were enough, but all three?
Midge Ure, Answers to Nothing, album cover.
Another album that checks all the boxes for me is Answers to Nothing, the second solo outing by the Scottish artist Midge Ure. I don’t expect that many of you are familiar with him, but he is one of my favorite rock vocalists (and no slouch as a multi-instrumentalist). Ure has a powerful, expressive voice that reminds me of a smoother version of Bono (U2). His given name is James, and he originally went by Jim. He got the name Midge as a result of being in a band with another Jim. Looking to avoid confusion with two members having the same first name, Jim was turned around to “Mij” and spelled phonetically as Midge. The name has stuck throughout a long and varied career.
He had a small amount of success in England in the 1970s with his band Silk, but it wasn’t until he was a member of new wave act Visage (fronted by vocalist Steve Strange) that he found recognition in the States. In the interim, he had turned down an offer from Malcolm McLaren to be the lead vocalist for the Sex Pistols! After Visage, he toured briefly as a member of Thin Lizzy (playing guitar and keyboards), and then became the front man for Ultravox. Ure led that band to a much greater level of success than its earlier incarnation (with lead vocalist John Foxx). Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie had also been a member of Visage. Ure also co-wrote and produced the Band Aid charity song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”
After Ultravox disbanded, Midge embarked on a solo career. His first album, The Gift, reached #2 on the UK charts, and had a #1 single in “If I Was.” He played guitars, keyboards, and electronic drums, relying minimally on a few other musicians on certain tracks. The album included a cover of the Jethro Tull song “Living in the Past.”
Answers to Nothing was, to my ears, a giant leap forward. Gone were the electronic drums, replaced by a rich mix of real drums and assorted acoustic percussion instruments. He again performed the bulk of the keyboards and guitars, with assistance on bass from Mark King (Level 42) and Mick Karn (Japan), and drums by Mark Brzezicki (Big Country). Brzezicki’s brother Steve also contributed bass on some tracks.
The album opens with the title track, a heartfelt takedown of false prophets offering empty hope.
“Take Me Home” expresses yearning for a return to the place of his childhood.
“Sister and Brother” is a duet with Kate Bush. I’ll admit I have mixed feelings about her vocal style, which strikes me as ranging from smooth to shrill.
The most famous song from the album is “Dear God,” which was a minor hit for Midge. The song is a questioning prayer asking for more goodness in the world.
“Just for You” is a bouncy number that tells of the things he would do for the one he loves.
Midge adds a slinky fretless bass to his arsenal of instruments on “Hell to Heaven.” Again, he is wondering why there is so much sadness and suffering in this world.
Anger at betrayal is the theme of “Lied.”
“Homeland” combines spacey atmospherics with a lot of percussion and a guitar solo reminiscent of the playing of Robert Fripp.
The album’s rich arrangements, crisp production, and overall clean sound serve the songs well. If I had to, I could live with just this album for a long time.
This is the official video for Ure’s earlier hit, “If I Was.” Note the contrast in instrumentation and production quality compared to the tracks on Answers to Nothing.
To end on a high note, here’s a stellar live performance of “Dear God” at the 1988 concert for Nelson Mandela’s birthday. The cooking band includes a horn section and two drummers, one of whom is Phil Collins.
Header image: publicity photo courtesy of Chuffmedia.com.