Astronaut is Duran Duran’s first album with its original lineup in two decades, and judging from the swaggering first single, “(Reach Up for the) Sunrise,” they never left. The opening strains are reminiscent of U2’s somber “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and for a scary moment I wondered whether Duran Duran had succumbed to that other band’s delusions of significance. But when the nonsensical chorus kicked in (“put your hands in/to the big sky”) I knew that significance wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, a lack of inspiration is.
Even New Wave sneerers have to give these pretty boys credit for persistence. While Eighties compatriots like A Flock of Seagulls and Missing Persons have reformed for their own cash grabs by cycling through their small selection of recognizable songs, Duran Duran avoided that living death by actually going into the studio and emerging with an album’s worth of credible new material that neither succumbs to nostalgia nor mindlessly apes current styles. It’s the true follow-up to 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger, the group’s baroque, pretentious third album and their last studio album as a full five-some before Astronaut.
Double-D never actually went away: After the band fractured in 1986, the core of singer/songwriter Simon Le Bon and keyboard/synthesizer wiz Nick Rhodes persevered through ever-changing personnel and years of declining album sales interspersed with fluky successes like the hit “Ordinary World” from 1993. Now all three unrelated Taylors are back on board: drummer Roger, bassist John, and guitarist Andy. This Duran Duran 2.0 is lean and mean right down to the CD cover art, a jagged cubist arrangement featuring the band members emerging out of Franz Kline-like slabs of black paint.
Yet very little in this polished, streamlined batch of songs reaches the semi-accidental brilliance the group is capable of, like the “cherry ice-cream smile” line from their 1983 hit “Rio.” The intriguing ambiguities and sound of early songs like “Girls on Film” and “Friends of Mine” made one wonder where in the world those songs came from. Nothing on Astronaut except “Sunrise” attains the same giddy, goofy sense of fun and exploration. It’s a refined product, but doesn’t seem to come from anywhere but a series of songwriting sessions. They aren’t bad songs; they’re just not very interesting. “Sunrise” deserves to be a big hit, but it was one of the first songs completed for the project, which doesn’t suggest a deep creative well or bode well for possible follow-up albums (with an average age of 44, the band’s still relatively young).
Three different producers contribute a full, well-rounded production that isn’t too cluttered or loud, but sometimes unnecessarily submerges Le Bon’s underrated nasal vocals. “What Happens Tomorrow,” which the group has featured in their reunion concerts, captures some of the doomed winsomeness of their surprise 1993 hit “Ordinary World.” The arrangement of “Want You More!” is overcrowded, but the snow-cone-cool chorus of “Taste of Summer” has some of Le Bon’s best “shooby-dooby-doo” nonsense chanting since “Rio.”
One possible concession to the aging process may be on display in the video accompanying “Sunrise.” While the group’s stylized, groundbreaking early 80s’ videos displayed models as robots, secret agents, or geishas, this time around the beautiful women only make a cameo, as literal mannequins in a shop window that don’t interact with the band at all. That could be seen as more pop objectification of women, but maybe the group’s actually just aging gracefully.
–Clay Waters is director of “Times Watch,” a project of the Media Research Center.