The ’80s are back. A result of nostalgia and commercialism, the musical revival is now in full swing. Bands like Duran Duran have re-formed and are touring to the delight of thirty-something moms and their teenage daughters. The New new wave is pounding the surf with bands like The Killers and Muse wearing their influences on their sleeves. So, it is time to count Simple Minds among those veterans renewing their lease on shelf life, but cynics beware: this is not a band cashing in and checking out, or a band trying to recapture any past cultural significance; it’s a band that still has something to say and a beautiful way of saying it.
The cover of Black & White 050505 (named for the day recording was completed, 05 May 2005) is deceptively captivating and somehow puts the listener into the perfect frame of mind for the contents within: It’s a black and white photo of two hands forming a heart, with their wrists bound to other’s arms. This visually poetic variation seems a perfect combination of an update on the Claddagh symbol the band has long been identified with, and the aborted cover art for 2003’s second attempt at releasing the mishandled Our Secrets are the Same album (which pictured hands lashed behind the person’s back).
Black & White 050505 clocks in at just over 40 minutes, but never leaves the listener feeling shortchanged as Jim Kerr and company have excised any filler from the set. The atmospheric build of “Stay Visible” leads off this tight collection of nine songs. The opening piano mixed with a quietly bubbling synthesizer lends a cinematic feel to the track, so that the listener is appropriately blown away when co-founder Charlie Burchill’s guitar kicks in almost a full minute later. The first single, “Home”, which Kerr has described as “a pop song with a spiritual heart, taking us on a secret journey through the thoughts of someone who is desperately seeking out their own inner crusade,” seems to accurately reflect the epic feel of the band’s work and remind the listener that quality pop music is still being made.
“Jeweller to the Stars”, from the botched Our Secrets are the Same album (which eventually saw the light of day as the fifth disc in the Silver Box set) reappears here slightly retooled as “The Jeweller (Part 2)”. A song like this showcases what one hopes for from a band that’s been making music for almost 30 years: the dramatic work of Burchill, and the soaring lyrics delivered in Kerr’s distinct voice. Legendary mixer Bob Clearmountain (INXS’ Kick, Simple Minds’ Once Upon a Time, Pretenders’ Get Close) seems to run the whole affair backwards and forwards repeatedly through the time machine, resulting in a sound that is instantly recognizable as Simple Minds, but undoubtedly a product of today.
Like “The Jeweller (Part 2)”, “Stranger” and “Different World” are songs with a barely containable urgency that allows long-time drummer Mel Gaynor and bassist Eddie Duffy to rock out. And the moody opening of “Kiss the Ground” kicks it up when the hook takes hold. These are the kinds of big emotional songs that will reverberate from your stereo, in your head, and throughout concert halls.
With an appropriately glacial feel, “Underneath the Ice” allows the band to play to their understated theatrics even more, submerging the listener in an ice floe of electro-pop. The sober title track is a soaring electro ballad with a classic Simple Minds’ feel. And the experimental “Dolphins” takes the languid soundscape to a room-filling level, as Kerr sings of “an ocean right there in front of you” where “dolphins circle ’round” and “the world juts in”. This gentle album closer is a daring move for a band with such a well-known sound and voice.
This is not a retread of a band trying to recapture its glory days so much as the sound of a band making itself relevant again by simply doing what they do well. Much in the same way U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was touted as a return to form with a new millennial update, Black & White 050505 sounds like a Simple Minds album appropriately made in the here and now. Unlike U2, however, Simple Minds have not heaped undue pressure on themselves by trying to jockey for position as the world’s greatest or most relevant rock band. They play like they have nothing to lose, ending up with an exceptional collection of songs that may well be the best release of 2005 by a member of New Wave’s old guard.