Album Review: Deep Down Happy – Sports Team
Print Music Editor Oliver Leader de Saxe decides if the hype surrounding Sports Team is justified on their debut record
There’s a strange cultural obsession in recent years about music that “captures the zeitgeist”; the incessant need for an album or artist to encapsulate the time there’re living in. In recent years the “zeitgeist” has become increasingly bleak and dark, often realised in the form of minimalist-backed pop or trap to reflect a world seemingly slipping into oblivion. So you’ll be surprised to hear that, at time of writing, one of the big contenders jostling for a number one album are a plucky bunch of upbeat, guitar-driven indie-rockers shamelessly singing about gardening, Weatherspoons and Demi Moor.
Sports Team’s presence is a welcome return to a very different era of music. From somehow selling out the Scala despite having less twitter followers than the capacity of the venue, to giving away their numbers on a WhatsApp group with their fans, the Cambridge sixsome’s brand of mid-2000s bohemianism feels wildly out of time in the best way possible. Which probably explains their recent stratospheric success; I can’t think of a better respite from the doom and despair which has dominated the headlines than a track as joyfully simple as ‘Fishing’ for instance.
Simplicity is Sports Team’s ethos. Their songs all follow a pretty familiar structure, and most experimentation is largely left to production quirks and the like. But this simplicity means each track is streamlined and concise. There isn’t a wasted moment on the album. In the aforementioned ‘Fishing’ we go from sing-along choruses to a mellow bridge, via twinkly piano lines that nest themselves beneath distorted guitars and kaleidoscopic drumming, all within the space of three minutes. Sports Team’s simplicity doesn’t come from any deficiency in musical or lyrical ability, but from straight-forward songwriting.
As if Franz Ferdinand is being fronted by Middle England’s answer to Talking Head’s David Byrne.
‘Here It Comes Again’ is another raucous rock song which doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, barely scraping the two minute mark, all the while begging to be moshed to. Lead guitarist Henry Young’s riffs are the beating heart of the record, and the quirky phased-out licks throughout the verses drip with character. But the guitar highlight on the record is ‘Going Soft’, with the fuzzy Pavement-influenced solo bleeding into staccato rhythm guitars that ring out in the background.
And if the guitar work is the heart of the record, then frontman Alex Rice’s voice is the soul. His tense, half-shouted delivery and carefree, conversational attitude brings a post-punkish flare to the proceedings; it almost sounds as if Franz Ferdinand was fronted by Middle England’s answer to Talking Head’s David Byrne, which is no bad thing. When he proclaims “I just wanted to be your mid-noughties MTV star” on ‘Kutcher’, the dorky erraticism of the statement is hard not to smile at.
Talking of talking heads, news reporters, politicians and corporatism find themselves in Sports Team’s sights. From lampooning middle-aged Little Englanders on ‘The Races’ (“He wears a Union Jack / He wants to take us all back”), to mocking MPs who “lounge like snake” on ‘Feels like fun’, this is a band that are totally in-touch with modern politics. Their observations are often sharply pointed but not preachy, wry but not wounded, equal parts sincerity and scathing satire. There’s a real empathy to their approach, which the opening track ‘Lander’ epitomises. It’s scuzzy basslines and soaring tremolo guitar provide the foundations for a witty stream-of-consciousness monologue about middle-class idealism which cuts to the heart of the matter in fun but nuanced way, with some great one-liners to boot (“I want to be a lawyer / Or someone who hunts foxes”).
I think this sincerity stems from the honesty of the band. There’s no pretence, no trying to cover up their identity; they are unapologetically middle-class, and they are very much aware of their privilege. It’s what separates them from their contemporaries. A lot of indie bands has delusions of grandeur and superiority; Sports Team don’t have such problems. In fact, the band often calls out their contemporaries for this kind of behaviour, like on the understated ‘Camel Crew’, where the band tears into pompous indie-darlings with aplomb: “This avant-garde is still the same / Go to Goldsmiths and they dye their fringes / Just to know they’ve made it”.
It’s rare to find a record this aggressively no-frills fun.
There’s a thin line between entitlement and self-awareness, one which the bands walks admirably. ‘Born Sugar’ makes mockery of the wealthy’s exodus from the cities, with Rice’s falsetto and Al Greenwood’s rolling drums colouring in commentary about “easy living” and making your parent’s proud. ‘Here’s the thing’ is a ramshackle back-and-forth banger where gets more wild and unfiltered as it goes. It’s easily the best track on the record as it dismantles societal falsities with the precision of a military drone strike: “(Here’s the thing) discrimination doesn’t happen anymore… It’s all just lies, lies, lies, lies”.
Meanwhile, the more hushed vocals at the beginning of ‘Stations of the Cross’ give way to the album’s most searing observation: “it’s not that you’re unhappy, it’s that you’re happy on and off”. It’s a direct acknowledgement of the unhealthy expectations that young people have been brought-up with, wrapped in a sense of knowing understanding from a band raised exact same way. The only time the group truly stumbles is on the track ‘Long Hot Summer’. Despite its sunset indie instrumentation and Oli Dewdney’s thick bass lines, the forlorn lyricism doesn’t really work with semi-ironic tone and wordplay about their Cambridge education.
For a debut album, Deep Down Happy doesn’t pull any punches. It’s well-written, well-performed, danceable and snarky. It has more bite to it than almost any other indie record this year. That being said, it isn’t anything you haven’t heard before. Although they put their own spin on it, what Sports Team are putting out is still recognisably indie. But at the end of the day, I don’t really care. It’s rare to find a record this aggressively no-frills fun. It’s rare to find indie this nuanced and divorced from its own arse. Perhaps Sports Team don’t capture the zeitgeist. But with a record this good they don’t need to.