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Reviewed by David Medsker
Take Duran Duran, if you will. They had near nonstop play on MTV. From 1982 to 1986, every entry into the Top 40, with the exception of the 1984 live re-release of “Save a Prayer,” also went Top 10. There were teenage girls who spurned their horny boyfriends because they were actually saving themselves for John Taylor or Simon LeBon. Meanwhile, critics reviled them, branding them as the death of pop music as they knew it. Eventually, the critics’ claims soon became prophetic, as Duran lost two, then three, members, then completely lost their muse; their 2000 album Pop Trash was the textbook definition of truth in advertising.
And then a funny thing happened: the critics who trashed them were gone, and in their place were people who grew up with, and loved, the Fab Five. Elastica and No Doubt cited Duran as a major influence. Suddenly, it was cool to admit, for the first time since 1985, that you actually liked Duran Duran. And the boys, nothing if not opportunistic, reunited for the first time since their performance at Live Aid to make Astronaut, their first full album together since 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger. It may smell like a money grab, but “Astronaut,” like most of Duran’s work, is better than you think.
For a band that hasn’t written a song together since 1985’s “A View to a Kill,” the musical chemistry seems to have rekindled rather quickly. In fact, the first half of Astronaut plays like a Duran Duran mix tape, with each song recalling a different album than the last. Leadoff track and first single “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise” has a certain “Planet Earth” vibe to it, a thumping dance beat (man, is it good to hear Roger Taylor playing drums again) anchoring a simple yet catchy vocal. “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 – which makes it unfortunate that they chose to mimic the wrong songs from that album. How about a sequel to “Shadows on Your Side” or “The Seventh Stranger” instead?
The appropriately named “Nice” is where Astronaut goes, well, into orbit. This is the Rio track, a “Last Chance on the Stairway” for the ‘00s, complete with a signature rubbery bass line from John Taylor and nonsense lyrics from LeBon: “Take the beautiful sting of a Scorpio / A careless smile and it begins to snow.” Yes! Andy Taylor’s longtime replacement on guitar, former Missing Persons axeman Warren Cuccurullo, ruled the band with an iron fist, insisting that LeBon tone down his purple prose and replace it with, well, nothing terribly interesting. LeBon’s lyrics were never the stuff of “American Pie” symbolism anyway, but his pre-Warren material was at least either intriguing or amusing. ‘Tis a welcome sight to see LeBon trying, once again, to take us to bed.
Speaking of the Warren Commission, “What Happens Tomorrow” is a dead ringer for a song from the Wedding Album (their 1993 eponymous comeback). The lyrics speak volumes about the hurt they all caused each other: “Fighting because we’re so close / There are times where we punish those who we need the most / No we can’t wait for a savior / Only got ourselves to blame for this behavior.” When LeBon sings “You’ve got to believe it’ll be all right in the end,” it’s easy to see him turning around, looking at his bandmates, and saying, “I love you guys.” And why not? Taylor/Taylor/Taylor/Rhodes/LeBon was the best lineup the band ever had, and they all know it. They may have had perfectly valid reasons for leaving the band at some point, but they also knew full well what it meant to be a member, or ex-member, of Duran Duran.
The one truly disappointing aspect of Astronaut, at least for the first generation fans, is its production. 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 kiddies as Linkin Park, Good Charlotte and Avril Lavigne. The end result is easily the most overproduced album in Duran’s history, which is saying something. The band admits it wanted to make something that didn’t sound retro, which is a smart move in an age of Killers and Faints. However, they easily could have made a modern record with a tenth of the processing and walls of keyboards that Nick Rhodes employs here. Not even Trevor Horn, whose name as producer often trumps the artists he’s producing, would have used as heavy a hand as Gilmore or pinch-hit producer Dallas Austin do here.
But this is splitting hairs. The fact is, Astronaut beats the odds, and Duran Duran, 19 years since their last collaboration as a quintet, has assembled an album that, while not necessarily great, is once again better than anyone has ever given them credit for being. And that’s all that anyone who was a fan of Duran Duran ever wanted for them in the first place: respect. It may be two decades late, but it is sweet nonetheless.