Review of the new Simple Minds album - Walk Between Worlds

Taste is a matter of opinion - or so goes one opinion. Aesthetics, a branch of pistols at dawn, is unlikely to become unruffled and resolved any time soon, and meantime it is possible to argue, in this post-post-modern age, an age of voter rage, that political opinion trumps taste anyway. We like what we say is art. And what we say is art is what likes us.

Simple Minds - the Scottish band founded around 1977 with the pale faces and beautiful cheekbones, and perfect indie hair cuts - comes from a time before that - from a Glasgow of poverty and working-class socialism, and religiosity, in a pre-Internet time when the heights of modernity were signalled by Kraftwerk, large synthesisers, and dancing like Bowie at 3 am in a Berlin club.

To say that early Simple Minds was mannered is like accusing Joyce of being experimental. Doh. The band sought to merge the icy innovations of German music with British and American pioneers of glam and proto-punk, like Iggy Pop; their heroes were contrived, creative, exploratory, dressed flamboyantly.

In this quest they were successful and by the early 80s had a handful of synth-pop albums the equal of Depeche Mode, OMD, and Ultravox. Unlike U2, often seen as rivals for Celtic stadium rock champions, they were not rock-oriented at this time. They were however pre-Brexit Europhiles ('I Travel' - "Europe has a language problem", indeed), and suspicious of global imperialism - see 'Boys from Brazil' and 'The American'.

Their great early radio hit, the squalling, eerie and ultimately exciting 'Love Song', combined politics, religion, and eros, with synth and a harder sound, to become a template and breakthrough. "America's the boyfriend" is a great line. There is no better new wave song from the UK from this period.

Around this time, they followed that up with a shimmering, sublime masterwork, New Gold Dream, from 1982, a plaintive, haunting, and deeply religious and poetic album - New Romantic in every possible way - filled with shadows, flames, burning gold memories, and so on. It remains possibly the most deeply theological pop album of the 1980s ("belief is a beauty thing") and arguably the least-appreciated of great new wave LPs.

What happened next is called John Hughes' The Breakfast Club - one of the most popular 80s films and now seen as seminal. Someone wrote a song for the band, and they were convinced to take the money, and perform 'Don't You (Forget About Me)' - an apolitical, ludicrously swaggering, teen pop tune, which blended with Jim Kerr's exhortations on vocals, and Charlie Burchill's always stupendous sense of musicality, to establish, astonishingly, an American number one hit - now a staple of nostalgia radio, but still genuinely loved. 

The next decade became a commercial pile-driver, as hard-driving rock-style hit followed hit, with Gospel-tinged grandeur - 'Alive and Kicking' best representing this period's style. Basically, they adopted the 'Don't You' manner, but inserted their own theological and political bias into the lyrics, establishing a very big sound, and feel.

Had wealth, fame, and presumably other temptations, not intervened, we might not have lost the band to decades of increasingly poorly-received albums - seemingly half a dozen, each less heard. By the new century, they seemed destined to be forgotten - were, to most, forgotten. But not quite. Oddly, Simple Minds, perhaps because so many of their songs - arguably ALL their songs - are soaring and optimistic, even joyous, and inspiring - had a fan base that would not forget them.

Their tours did well enough, their albums were in fact bought in sufficient numbers by ageing people. Not U2, but not Wang-Chung, either. They were, by this decade, into their 32nd year and more, and viable. They were becoming re-evaluated. Re-energized.

Their last few albums have been critically respected - especially Big Music. It was nice to see. But nothing prepared anyone for Walk Between Worlds. It is, simply put, their best album since 1985, and well within the range of being one of their top 5 best ever. That's a come back 33 years in the making, and unprecedented. U2 will never make another Joshua Tree. The Stones don't seem to make new albums. What other artists from 50-40 years ago still do what they did, superbly well? Not Blondie, not OMD - not even Depeche Mode, though they tried last year.

I mentioned taste earlier, because if you don't get the Simple Minds styles, you won't appreciate the delightful fusion of all of them on this new work. All I can say is they are ecstatic, irrational, grandiose, flamboyant, upbeat, spiritual, and vaguely camp, with a flair for drama and transcendent gestures - all the time. They are the most "Christian" band imaginable, insofar as their sound best makes sense as something you might feel if you were a rock star and had just discovered Heaven really existed, and would let you in. You'd probably shimmer, shimmy and swing too.

"Here comes summer, here comes rain" - the second song begins... indeed. The song titles and themes are emblematic: Magic, Summer, Utopia, In Dreams - the album, underpinned by icy jabs of German synths from 1978, and overlaid with those glistening guitars and strong drums of the 1982-85 period, is all about wonder, joy, a belief in an afterlife, energies, forces, and spectral emanations Mulder would love. And yes, a looking back, back in time, to Glasgow... like their best records, this one is only 8 tracks long - each "side" would be a tight-four song cycle - and these two sides, as it were, together form a grand retrospective on one of the singular achievements in popular music of the past half-century. However, unlike past attempts, this is not merely retro or belated. It is also, simply, masterful - it does what they did and do best, with profound and professional skill, and zeal.

I think what makes Simple Minds so fascinating is this marriage of skill and zeal. Their words sound naïve, and their music pompously popular, but their mission has always been deeply at cross-purposes to mainstream views. They never actually really sold out. They always made grand gestures to thrill and inspire. And they are consummate professionals, great in concert, great in studio.

Why this matters so much to me, besides being great fun as a music fan since the early 80s, is that their work proves my theory, argued for in my PhD thesis, that a high modern lyric style is viable - indeed the 1940s poets I admire were experimental moderns and new romantics for their age - the best exemplar of this style may be Hart Crane, both innovative, of his time, and richly baroque in his verbosity. Such work is a template for any writer, poet, artist, who wants to be sincere, big, exciting, dramatic, unabashed - but note, also artifice-aware. That is, there is a form of authenticity that is all dressed up and ready to dance. It may well be religious in temperament, and sees no reason not to wear one's Sunday best down the middle of the street on the way to the drunken wake. The good news is out there!


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