Album Review: Simple Minds, "Big Music"

Ever since their fledgling days in late 70's Glasgow, Simple Minds have always had a restless quality at the heart of their music. 

In the post-punk musical landscape of that era, it was the propulsive bass lines of Derek Forbes that dominated their off-kilter but curiously engaging mix of avant-garde krautrock that soon bloomed into the shimmering, transcendant romanticism of New Gold Dream, which in turn led to the thunderous, harder edged clatter of Sparkle In The Rain, and culminated in their commercial peak, with the polished glamour of the arena-friendly rock of Once Upon A Time.

Big Music, their 16th album, draws a lot upon their past glories, but for the most part does so wisely and effectively, sometimes with stunning aplomb. They embrace their past whilst looking ahead, and this alchemy of sound and attitude has arguably created their best album in 30 years.

Many music critics within the media have given Big Music a positive reception but have been surprised by the quality delivered. But to those who followed them through the bleak shadowlands of their career there is no real surprise. Black and White (2005) and Graffiti Soul (2009) were strong indicators of a band that had rediscovered their Glaswegian sense of "Gallus" (swagger).

The opening two tracks set the tone in breathtaking fashion. Blindfolded hurtles towards the horizon driven by a pulsing, insistent rhythm and wrapped up in layers of piercing, trippy guitars, and whooshing synths, as an almost operatic chorus filters through the flying static to create an anthemic surge to the song.

It is both the familiar sound of "classic" Simple Minds and that of a band still on a quest for new musical frontiers.

Midnight Walking by contrast begins with a muted but compelling keyboard intro before building up to its explosive climax with Charlie Burchill's exquisite and majestic guitar break.

Honest Town is the one of the fruits of Jim Kerr's collaboration with Ian Cook, of bright young things The Chvrches. Despite the slick, clubby dance intro, this is essentially a pleasing, well-written tune and a heartfelt tribute to Kerr's home town and his late mother.

"Look, Ma, I'm on top of  the world."
Elsewhere there is much to admire. Imagination would not be out of place on U2's Achtung Baby where Burchill once again excels with some infectious guitar hooks...

The Japan-themed Concrete And Cherry Blossom on first impressions might come across as a tad unwieldy and overstated, but at its core it has a big and bold attitude and a sound that wants to swallow up the sky.

Broken Glass Park is another in a trio of songs that harks back to the sentiments and emotions of the band's youthful past from viewpoint of middle-aged melancholy, but its big chorus and warm heart pulls you in.

But for me it is Spirited Away that is the hidden treasure at the heart of Big Music. It's swelling, emotionally-charged chorus left me in no doubt that there is real substance at play underneath the bold, glittering surface. It lingers long in the mind long after the firework display.

There are flaws in the collective whole though. Big Music sags a bit in the midriff with the lacklustre Blood Diamonds and Human is all arms aloft, beery sing-a-long that lacks the sparkle and depth of the aforementioned tracks.

The deluxe version of BM contains a couple of more compelling and adventurous songs in the shape of Bittersweet and Liaison both of which have a darker and edgier hue, and take their inspiration from their pre-1982 period. Perhaps those two songs are a taster of things to come. If so, then it is something to be welcomed with open arms.

Despite its flaws, Big Music is better than anything that we had the right to expect from a group of heavily-jowled men deep into middle age, and for that we should be grateful and celebrate them for as long as these "travelling men" continue on their long journey.

Mark Liddell
Revenge of Riff Raff
7th December, 2012
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