Ten years after its initial release, Ultramarine remains a go-to for effervescent and heady electro-pop.
Most of my amateurish early writings about Young Galaxy have been wiped from existence, and I can’t decide if that is a good or bad thing. There was one particularly rambling blog post about 2013’s Ultramarine that still makes me wince. In it, I remember harping on about how the album left me more curious about what they would do with their next record (2015’s Falsework) rather than focusing on the record they had just delivered. I wrote as if that was their fault and not because of my limited attention span. Though it’s taken me ten years to put down thoughts about Ultramarine again, it did not take nearly that long to recognize how short-sighted I was about the dreamy, synth-driven indie pop of the most accomplished Young Galaxy album.
Unlike their first time working with Swedish producer Dan Lissvik (on 2011’s Shapeshifting) when they sent him song files online, Young Galaxy decamped to Sweden to work with the producer in person. That subtle change is perhaps what lends Ultramarine its lived-in warmth and humanity. Replacing Shapeshifting’s colder, sterile sensibility with warm synths and soulful performances by vocalist Catherine McCandless, Ultramarine is (lyrically) a summer of new sensibilities to Shapeshifting’s winter of discombobulation and metamorphosis. “Here it comes again the beautiful warm weather / right before the end of everything forever,” McCandless intones on “New Summer,” a song that, in hindsight, is a prescient harbinger of the COVID pandemic. “The end will come for holidays and sweet sixteen,” she sings, ”For friends are getting lost in your computer screen.” At one time, the song’s shimmery cool synth lines used to make my arm hairs stand on end; now, the lyrical bullseye gives me the chills.
With Shapeshifting, Young Galaxy not only rewrote their own set of musical rules but created a whole new game.
Notably, Ultramarine is the first Young Galaxy album where Stephen Ramsay opted out of any lead vocal duties. With McCandless vocally front and centre, Ultramarine codified what Young Galaxy had been building towards and the direction for the last half of their catalogue (before going on an indefinite hiatus in 2018). Though we may not hear his voice on the album, Ramsay’s indelible mark is all over Ultramarine. Where once I tsk-tsked the faux-reggae shuffle of “Fall For You” and was lukewarm about “Fever” and “In Fire,” I now see these songs as the keys to Ultramarine’s heart. Leaning further into electronic dance music than ever before, Lissvik and the band expertly navigate all of the synthetic elements and effects without sacrificing the emotional impact of the songs.
“Pretty Boy” remains the gold standard of Young Galaxy songs. Catchy as heck and popping off like a long-lost New Order track, it is the epitome of what Young Galaxy does best: balancing electronic beats with soaring melodies and heartfelt vocals. They expanded on that formula with the stand-alone single “Crying My Heart Out” later in 2013 (later making its way onto the deluxe edition). Still, in terms of catchy pop hooks, atmospheric dream-pop, and emotive, captivating compositions, Ultramarine is untouchable. A decade after its release, it remains a fresh serving of gorgeously structured melodies (“Hard To Tell,” “What We Want”), moody and cinematic moments (“Out the Gate Backwards”) and the perfect blend of both (the resplendent closing track, “Sleepwalk With Me”). The disbelievers may never understand, but Ultramarine will always be one of my go-to’s for effervescent and heady electro-pop.
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