[9 December 2004]
The musical landscape is starting to look a lot a lot like 1986, and Rolling Stone‘s article on the subject at the time said it best: Whoops, wrong decade. That year, as you either recall or had blocked from memory with the help of electro-shock therapy, was the year when the Billboard charts witnessed such, ahem, veteran acts as the Moody Blues, Monkees, Heart and Boston rise from the dead and take back what was once theirs, rightfully or not. Nu Shooz and Robbie Nevil were two of many hapless victims of this insurrection.
No one is foolish enough to think that the same chart dominance will happen this year, since the charts now seem to be impervious to anyone over the age of 40, lest they happen to be accompanied by someone barely old enough to buy their own beer. Nevertheless, that has not prevented a lot of bands from trying. Tears For Fears just released the excellent Everybody Loves a Happy Ending, their first album as a duo in 15 years. Neil and Tim Finn, the former of whom founded Crowded House and the latter of whom founded seminal New Wavers Split Enz, released their second proper album together and are enjoying a bevy of praise. Keane’s album Hopes and Fears is, for all intents and purposes, the best album A-ha never made. Everything old, it appears, is new again.
The timing, therefore, couldn’t be better for Duran Duran. The stage had been set for this as early as 2000, when Duran Duran Mach II, the ‘90s incarnation of the band that included original members Simon LeBon and Nick Rhodes, along with former Missing Persons axeman Warren Cuccurullo, released Pop Trash, a textbook definition of truth in advertising if ever there was one. The band wasn’t just spent, they were mortgaged to the hilt and facing repossession. Cuccurullo, who ran a tight ship as the new leader of the band (Yes fans would refer to this as Trevor Rabin Syndrome), received his walking papers. LeBon and Rhodes hastily checked the ‘T’ section of the Birmingham phone book and started working on their apologies.
Ironically, as spotty as the individual careers had been for the former members—Andy’s last success of merit was producing Rod Stewart’s (terrible) 1988 album Out of Order; John never had a solo hit after his “I Do What I Do” single for 9 ½ Weeks; Roger gave up music altogether—the reunion was by no means a lock. John’s departure was a bad one, crystallized in the Medazzaland track “Buried in the Sand”: “Can’t say that I was surprised, when you broke the ties / They were hanging by a thread / But now I have realized, it couldn’t be the same / ‘cause everything has changed.” In fact, there are hints of discord between John and Simon all over Medazzaland: “Midnight Sun,” “Who Do You Think You Are,” and “Undergoing Treatment” all bear the scars that can only be inflicted by those closest to us.
And yet, if there is any one lesson to be learned in pop music, it is that time, or possibly the combination of time and a big honking paycheck, heals all wounds. When word spread that Duran Duran had reformed and started playing one-shot gigs in places like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, the shows sold out in seconds. When they finally followed through on their promise to do a full-fledged tour as the Fab Five, well, those tickets sold out in seconds, too. As an added bonus, the shows rocked, filled with vintage songs from all eras of the Duran Duran canon (Lord knows how difficult it must have been for Andy to play the riff to “Ordinary World”), plus a few deep cuts like “Waiting for the Night Boat” that sent the longtime faithful into a hysterics. The stage was now set for yet another comeback. Now comes the $64,000 question: Could they write an album together?
The answer, like most Duran albums, is yes and no. Astronaut, their first album as a quintet since 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, is filled with exhilarating highs and some confounding lows. One would hope that three years of writing (the earliest writing credit on the album is dated 2001) would produce more fruitful results than this, but in their defense, it has been 19 years since the last Taylor/Taylor/Taylor/Rhodes/LeBon composition (1985’s “A View to a Kill,” which hit #1). The most familiar of environments requires a period of adjustment. And even at its most erratic, Astronaut is still arguably better than anything Duran has made without the original lineup, save 1993’s Wedding Album.
A quick spin through the first half of the album implies that the band spent some time listening to their old stuff before convening to write anew, because the early goings play like some bizarre Duran mix tape. Leadoff track and first single “(Reach Up for The) Sunrise” is definitely the son of “Planet Earth”, sharing the same minor key and armed with a similar, Velcro-coated chorus. Far exceeding the bass-heavy mix of the song that popped up on the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy soundtrack earlier this year, “Sunrise” is the best single Duran’s sent to radio since “Come Undone”.
“Want You More” is a busier, Seven and the Ragged Tiger-type track, echoing that album’s equally busy “Of Crime and Passion” or “I Take The Dice.” Seven is a better album than history claims it is—“New Moon on Monday” is the band’s most underrated single ever—but “Want You More” is no “Shadows on Your Side” or “Seventh Stranger”. Right idea, wrong execution.
If there is a single moment where things fall seamlessly into place, it is “Nice”, a magnificent melding of Andy’s power chords, Nick’s wall of synths, and John’s octave-jumping disco bass that recalls the best moments of Rio all rolled into one. It’s not particularly complex, but neither was “Hold Back The Rain”, a fan favorite to this day. “Nice” is simple in all the right ways and, like all good pop songs, it knows when to quit, with a cold ending at a mere three minutes and 27 seconds. The label is nuts if they don’t release this as the second single.
If they have a moment of temporary insanity, “What Happens Tomorrow” would be another acceptable choice, a mid-tempo guitar driven piece that echoes, ironically, The Wedding Album, which features not a lick of Andy Taylor’s guitar playing. The song also acts as an olive branch from Simon to John for the cruel things he said back in the Medazzaland days: “Fighting, because we’re so close / There are times where we punish those who we need the most.”
The lyric is plain, yet speaks volumes: Simon is all but admitting that everything attributed to the band post-Live Aid pales in comparison to what they did as the Fab Five, and it’s not much of a stretch to make that claim. While there were undoubtedly some sterling moments between Notorious and the present - “Skin Trade”, “Land”, “Ordinary World”, “Breath After Breath” and “Midnight Sun”, to name a few—the band, by and large, were mediocre at best. 1990’s Liberty was dogshit, and even Simon acknowledged that on the Wedding Album song “Love Voodoo”. The all-covers album Thank You thoroughly wasted all the momentum that The Wedding Album had provided them. Medazzaland, while better than given credit for being, came hot on the heels of John’s departure from the band. Between that and leadoff single “Electric Barbarella”, the album didn’t have a prayer. And then there’s Pop Trash. ‘Nuff said. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that Astronaut is half as good as it is.
In spite of its production, that is. The band, taking a page from Rush (Paul Northfield, Hole), the Cure (Ross Robinson, Korn), and Morrissey (Jerry Finn, Blink 182), enlisted Don Gilmore, producer of such hip kitties as Linkin Park, Good Charlotte, and Avril Lavigne. The end result is easily the most overproduced album in Duran’s history, which is really saying something. The band said it wanted to make something that didn’t sound retro, a smart move in this age of Killers and Faints. However, they easily could have made a modern record that didn’t sound a tenth as processed as this. Rhodes has always been the most prominent, um, musician of the bunch, but where he would provide a foundation in the past for the band to build upon, he often smothers them here. It may simply be a matter of Gilmore and pinch-hit producer Dallas Austin not wanting to say no to their elders, but if anyone needs a fresh perspective from all angles, it’s this band. Granted, Gilmore doesn’t exactly rein in his younger charges, either (Linkin Park’s albums are overproduced, too), but in the interest of making a modern record, one can’t help but wonder if they chose a younger producer for the same reason that Sean Connery chooses young directors: so he can control them. If that was their motive, to paraphrase Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, they chose poorly.
And yet, despite the blood-thick production; despite the hackneyed tracks like “Bedroom Toys”, a cloying, awkward funk track that even Nile Rodgers’ signature scratch guitar can’t save; despite the hostile radio climate that “greets” them, Duran Duran found a way to make an album that, while not exemplary, is still better than anyone who thought they broke up in 1986 had a right to expect. It may not be Rio, but Astronaut is the sign of, for the first time in about twenty years, better things to come for Duran Duran. When was the last time anyone could reasonably ask for that?