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Thursday, 28 May 2009

Simple Minds

Not, not a reference to non-Eyewear readers. Readers of Eyewear will know that I love Simple Minds - that grandiose 80s band founded in 1977 that has somehow survived until 2009, with a few of its founding members still extant (Jim Kerr and Charlie Burchhill). My love of Simple Minds is not entirely logical, and much of it has to do with the fact that I consider their album New Gold Dream to be, along with The Queen Is Dead and Closer, one of the three masterpieces of British "new wave" and alternative music. And that critical claim is based on feeling as well as thought, and that I was young then, and liable to swoon.

However, there is an aesthetic that supports this judgement, and it is this: the 80s "New Romantics" are not so far from the poetic 40s "neo-Romantics" - they both explored excess, emotionality, religiose mannerisms and personal symbolism, and verbally-dense textures. I happen to think excess is as valid as austerity - both have their place. Anyway, enough preamble - Simple Minds have a new album just out, called Graffiti Soul, and it is their best album since the 1986 classic Once Upon A Time, which cemented their US rep built on "(Don't You) Forget About Me".

Sadly, the 23 years since 1986 have seen many declines, falls, and reclimbs for the band - with a few moments of interest along the way, notably the promising Neapolis, and the so-so Cry - and many duds. They could have been U2 but never clicked. I think the problem is partially in their stars - they were, and remain - grandiose, flamboyant, silly, and portentous - and that's their fun. They express big emotions with shimmering sounds and dramatic beats. Their words are religiose and emotive. U2 were cooler, and more able to expand and contract their signature style. However, the problem has been that Simple Minds - and I blame Kerr - didn't stick to their strengths. Perhaps because their initial success was based on this flamboyance, they sought to both emulate it, but tone it down. This seems a bit like attempting to kill the goose with the golden eggs, if not quite kill it.

Graffiti Soul is bound to disappoint fans, like me. I doubt it will make many new ones. However, it is their most responsible address to their great period of 82-86. The producer Jez Coad has kept the drumming tight, and the guitars shimmering. There are a few classic touches (some choir-like backing vocals, some keyboard drama) but not quite enough to soar. Instead, it is a back-to-basics feel and tone for a band that were never about basics to start with. Simple Minds were more glam than rock, and with the glam trimmed, you get glum. Still, they were also synth-pop pioneers on their early, haunting and exciting tracks, that often referenced a European hinterland of ominous shadow, erotic chance, and political intrigue.

Opener "Moscow Underground" captures this superbly, and reminds me a little of their great "Love Song". The next best track is the last (before the bonus ones - why have them at all?) - "This Is It" - which actually lifts to a recognisably '86 feel of euphoria, even mania. I suppose "Rockets" and "Stars Will Lead The Way" are good, but the rest of the songs, while competent, resist the drive and passion that make older songs like "Up On The Catwalk" thrilling, even strange.
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