At first glance, Gulp!—Sports Team’s sophomore release via Island Records—plays out much as you would expect from a bright, summery record from one of Britain’s most boisterous new indie bands. It’s an album that seems like all it asks of a listener is to have a good time, and it gets you there in a way that feels both effortless and exceptional. Alex Rice’s unique vocal style, a sort of friendly and charismatic conversational wailing, keeps the band from sloping into carbon-copy Britpop revival-act territory, but such is the charm of Sports Team that even if they were to occasionally to find themselves treading such ground, it wouldn’t be much of a problem anyway.
Gulp! isn’t quite the epitome of joy expressed through sound, but it isn’t trailing too far behind. The riffs all carry an exciting, full-bodied swagger, and are regularly split up by delightfully fuzzy, energetic punk sections that keep the momentum flowing well. The basslines pop; the hooks are witty and smart; the songs all sway between a potent mixture of funky, funny and ferocious.
But what’s interesting about a band so obviously enthusiastic about getting their audience to move is that most of the songs on Gulp! indulge themselves in some major downer lyricism. On “Fingers,” Rice notes that “The water’s brown / And the fish all got sick.” “Stuck,” meanwhile, switches focus from the environmental to the personal to discuss the breakdown of a relationship. But the bummer subject matter is tackled with the kind of fun, lively attitude that makes the album sound warm and inviting, despite it largely being a commentary on stagnation, boredom, and hopelessness. Even the album’s most openly gloomy song, “Getting Better,” will sound like a wholesome, good-time dance-rock tune to those who aren’t paying close attention.
There’s something about the way Sports Team have put these songs together that makes them transcend your standard dark lyrics/upbeat music affair. The way they merge the two elements is genuinely impressive, with the bleakness adding to the appeal of their energetic riffs in a way that untempered positivity might not be able to. It’s certainly true that every now and again, Rice’s lyrics sometimes nod in a broadly political direction, most evidently on Gulp!’s second single, “R Entertainment.” But they more generally contribute to a general overall vibe, acting as a kind of verbal mood board or Rorschach test that allows the listeners to impose their own experiences onto the music.
This might well open up Sports Team to accusations of writing songs that seem less substantial, but I feel that to level this at the band would be to egregiously miss the point. The irresistible energy that Sports Team have packed into damn near every line of Gulp! shows that this record isn’t just intended for listening; it’s intended for dancing. There’s a reason why lyrics are not simply read out on stage verbatim to audiences. It’s because the addition of the music, the instrumentation, ensures that the artist is communicating something far more to us than just the words they’re singing—something that maybe can’t, and definitely shouldn’t, be said in words alone. As the band’s flamboyantly miserable lyricism mashes with the raucous delight of their bouncing, buzzing riffs and beats, the message couldn’t be clearer: “Give us your disillusionment and we’ll help you dance it away.”