“Don’t judge this album on the first single ‘Rockets’, as it’s far better then (sic) that.” So reads the message on the homepage of one Simple Minds fan site. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it’s a pretty accurate reflection of where Simple Minds are at these days. It has spent the last 15 years stumbling around with the lack of purpose and focus that befalls a band who was once immensely popular, isn’t any more and doesn’t know how to handle it. So we’ve seen the covers album, the “return to our New Wave roots” album and the vault-emptying “lost” album. Now comes the comeback album.
At least, that’s how Graffiti Soul is designed. Featuring original guitarist Charlie Burchill and old-hand drummer Mel Gaynor alongside frontman Jim Kerr, it’s an attempt to return to the big, glossy art-rock of the band’s mid-1980s heyday. All together, it’s not as horrible as you might expect. In fact, it’s the best thing Simple Minds has done in a long, long time. If that’s not saying much, a couple of the songs are quite good by any standard. If you’d forgotten about Simple Minds, Graffiti Soul will remind you of what you once liked about them. Unfortunately, it’ll also remind you of why you eventually got sick of them and then forgot about them, too.
You could say “Graffiti Soul” is produced to within an inch of its life, except the production is what actually “gives” the album its life. Handled by the band along with regular collaborator Jez Coads, it’s smooth as glass, covering everything in a thick layer of shiny vinyl. The longing for a return to the charts is practically audible, in the cracking drums, sharp guitar lines and occasional “soulful” backing vocals It’s calculated, yes, but listenable as well—at least most of the time.
The first track, “Moscow Underground”, is a pleasant surprise indeed. Moody and resigned, with an Echo Box guitar riff that’s more Flock of Seagulls than U2, it’s mercifully low key. For this reason alone, it leaves an impression. Whatever kind of songs it’s in service of, there’s no denying Kerr’s voice is one of the most distinctive, commanding ones around. Over the years, it has deepened and grown even more rich, and it’s nice to hear Kerr trying to keep a lid on the bombast. Aside from the occasional smoker’s grunt, and the absolutely intolerable way he says, “I’m the one” on “Stars Will Lead the Way”, Kerr’s singing is probably Graffiti Soul‘s biggest strength next to the production.
But then comes the aforementioned “Rockets”, with its dumb, dated guitar line; silly, spaced-out synths; and generic FM rock sound that would have made for radio fodder 20 years ago. And what’s with those lyrics? “You send in your rockets / Full circle again.” Huh? Kerr handles each word carefully, twisting and turning the syllables around admirably but still can’t make them make sense. And that’s Graffiti Soul‘s problem. On an album of only eight proper new songs, there are simply too many moments like this. Moments where the tune is melodic but not in a distinctive or unique way, where the music and the mood suggest an import the songs just haven’t earned and where ludicrous catchphrases like “Kiss and fly!” or “Stars will lead the way” or “You bring me lightning” merge with a power riff to make sure you’re paying attention. And who thought it was a good idea for the bass player to leave his fuzz pedal on for every song? Just when a promising track like or “Light Travels” or the title track has you on the verge of forgiving Simple Minds for blatant commercialism, it swings you back the other way with a bad idea.
It comes as little surprise, then, that “Graffiti Soul’s” best track, by far, is a tacked-on “bonus track” recorded at separate, earlier sessions. “Shadows & Light,” not a Joni Mitchell cover, is a gorgeous, unassuming little pop song. It has a guitar riff that seduces, unforced lyrics, and a synth that buzzes so warmly it could be the sound of a thousand fireflies lighting up simultaneously. Ironically, “Shadows & Light” effortlessly achieves the artful grandeur that the rest of “Graffiti Soul” labors so hard for.
Apparently, the message on that fan site has gotten through. “Rockets” was a flop, but Graffiti Soul managed to scare its way into the UK Top Ten, something Simple Minds hadn’t done for 14 years. Mission accomplished, then. The commercial success is a victory Simple Minds and its hardcore fans must be savoring. For everyone else, it’s a pretty hollow one.