Simple Minds have released their best studio album in possibly three decades, striking a beautiful balance of pop radiance and musical delicacy.
Simple Minds were known as one of the biggest bands in the world from the mid-‘80s to the early ‘90s. Their earlier work in the first part of the ‘80s was both cool and ground-breaking. This band might have become U2 (size) or R.E.M. (innovation). Instead, its two core members, vocalist Jim Kerr and guitarist/keyboardist Charlie Burchill, have seemed content over the last two decades to settle for a form of semi-cult status which has gradually mutated into a state of grace as rock elder statesmen.
The expression goes that quality will out; as does persistence. And recent years have witnessed a turning of the tide for Kerr and Burchill: growing recognition of their ‘80s legacy, bigger gigs, and a return to the album charts (at least in Europe).
So here comes an album of all-new tracks, Big Music, which has been lauded in advance as a “return to form.” From the urgent, dynamic intro to “Blindfolded”, the positive promotion feels vindicated. It’s moreover fair to say that the first three tracks are as crackling a beginning to a Simple Minds record as anything dating back to their masterpiece, New Gold Dream, in 1982. “Blindfolded” does retain an ‘80s feel – as do several of the tracks – but Kerr and Burchill have wrapped it around in a contemporary sheen. The fast waltz “Midnight Walking” bears all the hallmarks of the best Simple Minds songs – the hushed Kerr vocals which sounds like he’s confiding a secret, the scalding Burchill guitar tones, the synth flourishes, the propulsive drums (Mel Gaynor back in harness, and it shows). The shimmering “Honest Town”, the lead-off single, builds to a beautifully finessed muted climax. Like Kerr’s optimal lyrics, “Honest Town” feels personal but doesn’t bear more of his soul than it has to.
The next two tracks presage the one lull in quality. Big Music is simply too full-on, and a reminder that the band were always at their best when they practiced subtlety as opposed to the overwrought extravagance of their late ‘80s output. The next song, “Human”, is a bit turgid.
The second half of Big Music perks up immediately with “Let the Day Begin”. Thereafter there is no real let-up, and the track sequencing benefits from a stop-go rhythm to it. Almost all the tracks are aural pleasures. By the time the band reach the penultimate song, “Broken Glass Park”, it’s almost as if they know they’ve hit the jackpot in the way that the song fades out in a playful, mocking tone. The last track, “Spirited Away”, could become a classic. Again, it features the Kerr voice on mute as he mysteriously seems to document his past in what is tantamount to a confessional, over a hypnotic bed of guitar and synth chords. When the song comes to a conclusion, you want to hit re-play instantaneously.
The main takeaway from what is at times a feast of class pop, is that Simple Minds are a band re-energised and thus re-invented. There’s no doubt that the drive for “bigger, louder” from 1984’s Sparkle in the Rain onwards damaged them. It probably didn’t help that Kerr and Burchill shed such fine musicians as founder members, bassist Derek Forbes and then keyboardist Mick McNeil, over time. But there is also the sense – imparted by the rapid tempo of many of the tracks – that Simple Minds are trying to make up for lost time and the cul-del-sac they drove down from the mid-‘80s onwards.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t actually “big music”; and it’s ironic that the one major failure on the album is the title track, which evokes some of the stadium rock mis-steps of Sparkle in the Rain and Once Upon a Time. And return to form Big Music may be; but it is not a reversion to basics. There are no traces of Life in a Day’s post-punk roots, nor the motorik dance rhythms of Empires and Dance (a conspicuous influence on the Manic Street Preachers’ latest release). The template is Sons and Fascination and, above all, New Gold Dream. Anyone who loved the delicate peals of “Someone, Somewhere (In the Summertime)” or the simmering mystique of “Hunter and the Hunted” (the performance of Kerr’s life) should apply here. A textbook case of coming back with credibility and dignity.