First Impressions: Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions by the Dream Syndicate

Life’s timeline rippled in the wind this week, twisting, turning and flapping back on itself. Diane and I returned for likely the last time to our old stomping grounds in Montgomery County, Pa., on Tuesday to bid a final farewell to my mom. The month between her passing and the funeral turned into a weird sort of limbo for me, almost as if she was away on one of the several oversea adventures she took in her later years; this punctured that illusion. While the family gathered near the gravesite on Wednesday, a doe (a deer, a female deer) lingered near the trees that line one side of the cemetery—it was something she would have loved and a small moment of beauty in what was otherwise a downbeat day.

I can’t help but to think back to the days that used to be.

Maybe it’s because of that nostalgic mood I find myself in, but I hear echoes of long ago lingering throughout Dream Syndicate’s latest album, Ultraviolet Battle Hymns and True Confessions. It’s immense and vibrant, accented by fluid guitars one moment and Steve Wynn’s incisive lyrics the next. Hints of Lou Reed/Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Brian Eno and more erupt from Ultraviolet in ways that flood the brain with dopamine, yet—as back in the day—the result remains decidedly Dream Syndicate, which always trod new ground with each new release. As singer-guitarist Wynn sang long ago, “Two steps forward/don’t say I didn’t warn you.” 

(L.A. Weekly, 1982)

For those not up on their music lore, the Wynn-led band hails from L.A.’s fabled Paisley Underground scene of the 1980s, when they shared bills with the Salvation Army/Three O’Clock, Rain Parade, Bangs/Bangles, Green on Red and other area bands. They released their debut EP early in 1982 and their classic Days of Wine and Roses LP later that same year, and followed it with three more equally idiosyncratic albums, some of which worked better than others, and two cool live LPs. Lineup changes ensued, too. Like most of their contemporaries, they never transcended beyond the club scene, as they were elbowed out by the bland rock and empty pop AOR radio and MTV pumped out, though they did open for U2 and R.E.M. in larger venues in ’83 and ’84. They faded from earshot by decade’s end, and remained dormant until 2012, when they toured the U.S. and Europe. 

One of the biggest musical regrets of my life: Not getting into their music until their last studio album of the ‘80s, Ghost Stories

I’ll mostly eschew a song-by-song analysis of Ultraviolet—the fourth of their reformation years—and simply say this: The spacetime continuum loops back on itself while listening. It synthesizes the past, present and future of a specific strain of “college rock” (aka alternative rock before it was thusly named) into a coherent whole, neither playing up the old nor pushing off the new. “Keep moving, the lines are shifting back,” Wynn sings in “Lesson Number One,” a sly chronicle of lessons learned from a life led outside of the mainstream scene. It’s followed by “My Lazy Mind,” in which he seemingly offers a defense of his failures, and closes with the rollicking “Straight Lines,” about zigging when he should have zagged. It matters not, really, whether the songs are about him, his life and career, but they sure as hell reflect the experiences of many listeners, me included.

I should mention that the band, in addition to Wynn, features original drummer Dennis Duck, longtime bassist Mark Walton and lead guitarist Jason Victor, who signed on in 2012, plus Green on Red’s Chris Cacavas on keyboards. The Long Ryders‘ Stephen McCarthy also lends a hand as does saxophonist/trumpeter Marcus Tenney.

Anyway, to sum up, Ultraviolet takes me back to the many hazy summer days and nights I spent in the ‘80s with headphones on and lyric sheet in hand, both deciphering the latest, greatest release from any of my many favorites and losing myself in it. It’s a world long lost and, for all the strides made in the decades since, much missed. So if you remember a time when MTV first shoehorned the best music into a two-hour block called 120 Minutes, or even before, this album is for you. It’s my favorite release of the year, easy. It simultaneously takes me back and pushes me forward.

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