Supposedly, there are enough clothes on the planet right now to dress the next six generations. Without meaning to sound glib, I think we could also stop making music inspired by suburban ennui and have enough to last a very long time. “There’s no club in this town anymore / But if you want to do drugs, you could always go to London,” Sports Team’s charismatic frontperson Alex Rice drawled on the opening track from Deep Down Happy.
The London-based group’s 2020 debut—sharp, vibrant, post-Britpop guitar music—was replete with middle-class dissatisfaction. There were songs about carefree exploits with your pals, long hot summers, Ashton Kutcher—all broadcast live from Commuterville, UK. Somehow, that album gentrified the “there’s nothing for me in this town” trope, or at least spun it in a way that felt revitalizing. And as a suburban, 20-something, college-educated Brit feeling adrift, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t knock me off my feet.
Two years on, both Sports Team and I have flown the nest. They have toured the world and been nominated for a Mercury Prize; I’ve acquired a state-of-the-art food processor. Naturally, I wasn’t sure what we’d have to talk about. After listening to Gulp!, it seems they aren’t too sure, either. “If you’re young and living in the UK, what do you tie meaning to?” Rice asks in the album’s press release. It’s a solid angle for album number two—an opportunity to unpack one’s privilege and examine what it means to be British and middle class (“Life’s hard but I can’t complain” he shrugs on the opening track)—but Gulp! primarily treads desultory, modern-life-is-rubbish water for 35 minutes and wraps without any substantial revelations.
That’s not to say that this is a bad album. It’s not. The songwriting is really good; it just doesn’t get under your skin or make you want to do, well, anything much—not party, not take to the streets to demand change. Musically, chief songwriter Rob Knaggs approaches the songs in a more dynamic, considered manner—these are bigger arrangements for bigger crowds. The chanty choruses, knotty bass lines, and Buzzcocking four chords remain, but they now share the wheelhouse with slower tempos and—gulp!—acoustic guitars, such as on the lumbering “Getting Better,” which sounds like Oasis rewriting “The Boys are Back in Town,” rhythm pushes and all.
“Dig!,” conversely, is one of the best songs the Team have ever crafted, and teases a direction they could have wholly embraced on the album; Knaggs’ Nick Cave–indebted baritone mumbling and Rice’s authoritative hollers converse over a course of impellent krautrock. The penultimate track, “Fingers,” is the closest the album gets to the life-changing magic à la Deep Down Happy—riotous, fuzzed-up, and wide awake.
Much like a certain Isle of Wight duo, Sports Team represent a specific faction of modern Britain and beyond—the jaded entry-leveler, the arrested development idealist, et al. After all, life is just as confusing and absurd after leaving your parents’ house as it was at 18, if not more so. But while Teasdale and Chambers hit that sweet, wry, buzzy bullseye, Sports Team have skirted around it. People say that Bruce Willis’ movies went downhill after he lost his hair, as though it was the source of his powers. Indeed, without their suburban malaise, Sports Team seem to have forgotten what it is that makes them tick. Then again, I quite liked Looper.