After the autumnal melancholia of 2016’s Dusk, the title of Ultimate Painting’s fourth album suggests a band leaving the past behind and ascending to another level, and to a certain extent that is the story of this record. Now signed to Bella Union, the record is a supremely confident and, at times, radiant example of their song-writing ability but it also masks a more turbulent story. There were plenty of times when the question was not what it would sound like but would it even exist.
By the end of 2016, Jack Cooper and James Hoare – the band’s two equal but contrasting songwriters – were burned out and unsure of their next move. Releasing three albums in three years had taken its toll and they decided to take some time out to consider their next move. A good idea in theory but as it transpired a bad one in practice, as they immediately started to second-guess what to do next. “We both initially had the idea that we wanted to make a record that had more of an electronic element,” explains James. “We thought we’d try to go slightly more in that direction. Drum machines, synths and so on.” Jack adds: “We started to question what people wanted from us and in the process I think we briefly lost the idea of what the band was.”
The confused sessions around this time – all of which occurred in the band’s own recording studio in North London – were further hamstrung by Hoare’s on going issues with depression. Eventually an enforced halt was called due to live commitments in the US and it was while they were there, sat on a bench one morning in rural Pennsylvania, that the decision was made to scrap everything. It felt liberating…
Back in the UK in summer 2017, they immediately started over and with rediscovered confidence and momentum recorded a whole new album in just two weeks. The results convey something of that effortless spark as well as a reconnection with the bands’ innate Englishness.
This isn’t the midnight-black interior world of the third Velvets’ album (to which they’ve so often been compared); it’s a record that stretches out in different directions. One minute – on Foul & Fair – drawing from the 60s Brit-folk tradition of Fairport Convention, the next on – I Am Your Gun – channelling the luminous fairground psyche of the Pretty Things or Syd Barrett. It’s also the sound of a band obsessively honing their sound. They joke that it’s the most “Ultimate Paintingy” record they’ve ever made too.
When it was all finally done, though, they both realised all their tough decisions had been vindicated. Their best record to date, albeit the one that caused the most pain and indecision – they hope it will continue their steady ascent. Jack comments: “If it ends tomorrow, I’d feel really good about the work we’ve done together. There’s a cohesion to it but most of all they’re records that we made of music that we wanted to hear. We don’t really have an agenda other than that.”