A review of UB40’s Twentyfourseven (2008)
An elegant, slightly dark and dubby swansong, Twentyfourseven affirms for the last time what a strong and intelligent reggae band UB40 was. Forging its own path on the periphery of reggae, and – at the same time – somehow propelling the genre into the future by keeping it anchored in one-drop while dancehall and hip hop threatened to transform it into another ‘lost’ music, the brothers Campbell and their bandmates always had a lyrical and sweet sound. Their evident love of classic ska and reggae singles from the 60s and 70s resulted in a seemingly neverending string of radio hits in the 80s and 90s. Cynics might say that they just found new ways of selling the same old music to white people again; but, as their best-known album titles affirmed, their cover versions were really labours of love.
Twentyfourseven is less upbeat than many of the other recent UB40 efforts. It’s also more coherent and demonstrates (too little, too late, perhaps) how and where reggae and hip hop connect in the UK. Much of it sounds surprisingly like those delicious reggae tracks on Massive Attack’s first two albums. There’s a dubby flavour to Twentyfourseven that sometimes puts Ali’s vocals a little further down the sound stage and surrounds them with almost King Tubby like reverb (a counter-intuitive move, of course, for reggae traditionalists who would expect the dub plates to come after the album tracks). On ‘Lost and Found,’ he sings,
Anybody could be me | You could be standing here | It’s so very easy | For me to disappear | No-one seems to see me | It’s as if I don’t exist | I’m going nowhere | And I know I won’t be missed (from “Lost and Found”)
I think that the autumnal keyboard pads and other melancholy sounds are, in a manner of speaking, a reflection of what happened to UB40 in the late 90s and 2000s to date. Largely forgotten by the record-buying public, filed under “Easy Listening” in record stores, doing the de-facto nostalgia circuit and adrift in terms of label distribution (Twentyfourseven did not see a North American release), the last 10 years can’t have been an easy journey.
More than listenable, Twentyfourseven is reggae that embodies, in a way, a fresh take of my generation’s first grasp of this music: too young to have been attuned to Marley, Tosh, Culture and Jimmy Cliff in the 70s, I think I may have heard UB40’s first Labour of Love around the same time I first heard Marley. To be sure, Twentyfourseven is also very modern and has an up-to-date sound, somewhere between Jamaica’s own one-drop revival of the last few years and the aforementioned UK trip hop. And Ali Campbell’s voice is still interesting and unique – instantly recognizable, it lends a lyricism and romance to UB40’s music that many other reggae acts simply don’t have.
Campbell has now left the band to pursue a solo career. His departure was poorly handled, as the press releases on the band’s website amply illustrate. Not cool, not classy, and maybe a little too 80s.
His initial solo product is not that encouraging: the production is too high-pitched and tinny, and – despite some interesting collaborators – the whole thing falls rather flat as a record. But, like Queen or INXS, UB40 is ultimately as defined by its lead singer’s voice as it is by its material. It stands to reason that if Campbell finds his solo feet, his music will sound just like UB40’s. UB40, though, without him, will not. To keep the cash cow going as long as possible, the anthologizing has already started: this year’s Love Songs begins the journey of preserving UB40, with Ali Campbell as lead singer, for generations to come. Whether the rest of the band continues to record and perform as UB40 is quite irrelevant.