Ultra was an interesting album, in that it was their first in four years — an unprecedented timelapse for the band at the time, whose last stretch (between Violator and Songs of Faith… and not including the SoFaD Live set) was nearly three years. It was also their first without Alan Wilder, who’d provided all the unique industrial sound effects to their albums and singles since Construction Time Again. And it was also their first album after singer Dave Gahan’s recent health and emotional issues had become public. This was going to be a make or break album for them.
As if to state the point right off, pre-album single “Barrel of a Gun” was a track of jagged misery and anger that mirrored all the personal issues they’d been dealing with over the last few years. But it also proved that the more rock-oriented SoFaD wasn’t just a fluke. The keyboards were still there, but they had truly evolved from a synthetic post-punk quartet to a 90s alternative rock band. They had retained their dark moods and sounds, but they were now being delivered with a heavy punch.
The follow-up single, “It’s No Good” (released two weeks before the album itself) on the other hand, tripped up fans with its heavy sequencing and lighter melodic touch — hinting at their Some Great Reward era, come to think of it — but it was one of Martin Gore’s best and catchiest songs on the album and became a hit both in the US and the UK. [And as if to drive the point home that they hadn’t completely lost their sense of humor, the video shows the trio performing as a skeezy lounge act and totally hamming it up.]
Third single “Home” showed that Martin Gore could still write and sing their best ballads, even though it failed to hit the charts. Gore once again writes about the pleasures of a solid relationship and the reminders that things couldn’t get any better than this…even when things aren’t as good as they used to be.
Final single “Useless” brings the band full circle, sounding both strong and delicate at the same time. It’s a track that hints at Violator-era songwriting but with a modern production. The single itself was not a chart-topper, but it proved that they had persevered and remained an extremely popular and inspirational band.
The album itself dropped in mid-April 1997 alongside numerous other big-name alt.rock albums such as Supergrass’ In It for the Money, The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, Third Eye Blind’s self-titled debut (and just a month after U2’s long-awaited and sadly much-maligned Pop). They couldn’t have timed it better, as that year was quite a turning point for the genre. Britpop was dying a long and painful death, commercial alt.rock was splintering between mainstream rock (such as U2 and 3EB) on one side and the alternative metal of Korn, Marilyn Manson and Limp Bizkit on the other. This gave them a unique chance to release an amazingly strong album — even as they chose not to tour for it due to health reasons. Numerous tracks would also pop up on American television shows — 90s TV was big on the popular sountracks back then — enabling them to stay in the spotlight.
They would finally return once more to touring for the next album — a second singles compilation — in late 1998, along with a new song, “Only When I Lose Myself”. A lovely midtempo song, it would be the bridge between their harder rock sound of Ultra and the more acoustic and mellow Exciter album in 2001. It’s a swan song in a way, a thank you to the fans that had seen them through an extremely turbulent but ultimately successful decade.