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U.V. PØP - No Songs Tomorrow

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Artist: U.V. PØP

Album: No Songs Tomorrow

Label: Sacred Bones

Review date: May. 11, 2012

Sacred Bones’s passion for the sound of early 1980s minimal synths has them delving into that past to reissue a much-overlooked album by Sheffield act U.V. PØP. Essentially a one-man band centred around Sheffield native John White, U.V. PØP evolved from the same Northern English musical scene that gave the world the stark industrial post-rock and synth-punk of Cabaret Voltaire and The Human League, but also found echoes across the Pennines in moody Manchester acts like Joy Division and Crispy Ambulance. No Songs Tomorrow was compiled and released in 1983 from a series of tracks and demos recorded in 1981, but still holds together well as a full album.

No Songs Tomorrow fits into the continuity of the U.K. music scene of 1981, especially sonically, but at the same time diverts from it, in that White’s overtly political lyrics stand him apart from his peers of the time. As the man himself has said, Britain in the 1980s was caught in a depression that was only getting worse in the wake of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s extremely right-wing government. Sure, she revitalized the private sector after a decade of strife, but did so at the expense of the public sector, successfully and brutally attacking trade unions and the country’s industry. Sheffield, nestled in the heavily-industrialized North of England, was one of the cities that felt the brunt of this destruction hardest. Throw in a jingoistic war with Argentina, constant strikes and a rapid rise in unemployment, and it’s no wonder that musicians like White could only comment on what they saw through dark and despairing eyes. Like so many albums that followed punk’s anarchic explosion, U.V. PØP does not offer much joy: the title No Songs Tomorrow says it all, really. If most bands of the time, especially Northern ones, reflected the grim reality of Britain’s social and economic crisis, I can think of few that expressed it as overtly as White. Ian Curtis’ gloom felt personal, whilst Oakey and John Foxx reflected the unease through arty references and icy futurism.

To be honest, this one-level sloganeering probably doesn’t do White a lot of favors. His lyrics, sometimes well-observed, simply don’t carry the timeless potency of those of Curtis, Oakey or Foxx; he’s so earnest, I feel rather bad writing that. The opening title track is strong, its bleak vision reflected through self-references to the future of song. It’s quite a bold stance to imagine that, as a professional musician, the future may only hold silence. “Portrait” is even stronger, a denouncement of intolerance and prejudice that has more subtlety than the rest of the tracks combined. Given the Thatcher administration’s rampant homophobia and occasional dabbles in barely-veiled racism, “Portrait” feels apt even 30 years on, as the debate around gay marriage and multi-culturalism throws up similar nasty comments from the Right in this country to those uttered in the pages of The Sun and The Daily Mail in the mid-’80s.

The rest of the album doesn’t have those tracks’ potency, though, with the spoken word anti-religion diatribe “Psalm” being particularly cringe-worthy. Too often No Songs Tomorrow feels like Sham 69 with a drum machine. Musically, however, it’s an interesting mixed-bag of an album. Most startling is the frequent use of acoustic guitar on the first half, not something you’d really expect of a synth-based act, but which fits well with the protest song theme of White’s lyrics. It doesn’t always work or feel useful, but, along with drum machine beats so primitive they make early Throbbing Gristle seem lush, the acoustic guitar adds a brittle sparseness to proceedings. For the most part, the music is basic, with cold synth lines and thudding pre-techno percussion driving angsty ballads centered on White’s voice. Sadly, he is not much of a singer, and so once again the album becomes hamstrung by its simplicity. There’s a lot of material, both musical and lyrical, on No Songs Tomorrow that could be great, but it feels underdone. Maybe the synths could have been more expansive, as many of U.V. PØP’s contemporaries showed; maybe the acoustic guitar could have benefited from better treatments, to properly meld the album’s futuristic bleakness with the spirit of Ewan MacColl and Bob Dylan.

As it is though, No Songs Tomorrow is a welcome but flawed footnote to the story of British post-punk. It’s glum outlook certainly feels like a decent precursor or counterpart to continental Europe’s minimal cold wave, the edgier second half in particular. It’s another album I’m glad is out there again, but not one that really changed the world in the way its creator might have hoped.

By Joseph Burnett

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