Seemingly indestructible British-Jamaican collective UB40 returns to the American airwaves this week with “Who You Fighting For?,” their umpteenth album of pat and perky reggae for people who don’t listen to reggae (read: white people). This time, though, the sun-drenched jams come with an undeniably political slant — part anti-war missive, part anti-Bush invective, “Who You Fighting For?” makes no qualms about its left-wing world view. Unfortunately, though, the group’s buoyant, “have a nice day” vibe and cheery, up-tempo rhythms are poorly suited to their dark themes and scathing lyrics, ultimately creating a confused and mediocre album.
It’s a shame, because reggae can be one of the most effectively political genres of music — just listen to the volumes of socially-vigilant verse from the members of the Marley clan alone. But UB40 was never one for mournful acoustic-guitar paeans or enraged 8-minute epics. No, they found success way back when with the sugary-sweet (yet irrefutably fun and charming) “Red Red Wine” and a rendition of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” and they never looked back. These guys may spit hardtack (“You do the killing/ They do the drilling/ You do the dying/ They do the lying” is a prime example from the title track), but you can tell they’re chewing bubble gum.
From a purely aesthetic perspective the songs are gorgeous, each one featuring dynamic bass, tight melodies and lush harmonies that will tickle the underbelly of adult-contemporary radio for months to come. Unlike Depeche Mode and other 80s artifacts, their sound is just as fresh and funky as it was 10 years ago. The singles’ cruise-ready “After Tonight” is a catchy, sax-driven number that will get more airplay in South Beach than in Kingston, no matter what year it is. It’s not like the Wal-Martization of reggae is a new phenomenon anyway — might as well enjoy it while it’s still tolerable.
Yet it’s painfully clear how much greater they could be, with songs like “War Poem” and “Sins of the Fathers” — stark, socially-conscious tirades aimed at the very disenfranchised youth that will probably never hear them. You can’t help but feel a bit awkward listening to a lyric like “Seek asylum from the terror/ Raining down on bitter earth” played over a perfectly sanitized trumpet line and Trinidad’s steel drums. At least the prospect of another 25 years of UB40 isn’t too farfetched — check back with them in 2019, maybe they’ll have finally hit their stride.