When the ball dropped on 1989, Duran Duran and its spinoff groups Arcadia and the Power Station had racked up some mighty impressive sales figures. Eight platinum albums (including the 1984 live album Arena and the 1989 best-of Decade), one gold album, and 12 Top Ten singles. Those numbers stack up remarkably well against the gods of the decade; Prince had 14 Top Ten singles, Bruce Springsteen had 11, Michael Jackson had 16, and Madonna had 17. (Janet Jackson only had eight, because half of Rhythm Nation‘s singles charted in 1990.) The band truly were one of the biggest acts of the era.
Ah, but look closer, and you’ll see a disturbing pattern: nearly all of those hits came between 1982 and 1986. From 1987 on, the band scored one Top 10 single (“I Don’t Want Your Love,” and that one owes its ass to a life-saving remix by Shep Pettibone), two Top 40 singles (“Skin Trade,” “All She Wants Is”), and their only studio release in that time, 1988’s Big Thing, was the one that only went gold. The one new track from Decade, “Burning the Ground,” did not chart, though it was a hit in the clubs and is one of the first mash-up tracks ever assembled. Still, it is not inaccurate to say that Duran Duran limped to the finish line, and was in serious need of retooling.
Indeed, it was clear that the band’s surviving members, Simon LeBon, John Taylor and Nick Rhodes, knew this, because their last act at decade’s end was to flesh the group back out to its five-piece origins after making two albums with a gaggle of session musicians. Warren Cuccurullo, who had played with the band in the studio and on tour since Notorious (1986), finally became Andy Taylor’s full-time replacement on guitar, while then-25-year-old Sterling Campbell supplanted Roger Taylor on drums. The band hired Chris Kimsey, best known for his work with the Rolling Stones and Marillion, to produce. All signs pointed toward the band getting back to what it did best: dance-oriented rock, or DOR as it was once called.
Liberty (1990) is the sound of a band that’s completely lost its way. In fact, it sounds like about a dozen bands losing their way. The songwriting is unfocused at best and plagiaristic at worst – “First Impression” is The The’s “Infected” without a soul, and the verses to “Hothead” steal from one of their own songs, the great “Skin Trade” – and the batch of songs as a whole is so lacking in cohesion that it sounds more like a compilation of artists rather than the work of one band. Kimsey’s production is, well, how do we put this nicely…it’s thick. Between the vocal samples, percussion, and over-the-top processing of poor newcomer Campbell, Kimsey lays on the studio gimmickry in an unusually ham-fisted manner. His production style has always been big, but never has it been so excessive.
A look at the individual performances could explain the lack of execution as a unit. Simon has a hell of a time coming up with a good vocal melody – and in the case of “All Along the Water,” a good vocal – and drops the worst Duran lyric of all time on “Venice Drowning,” where he rhymes ‘jism’ with ‘catechism.’ (You read that right.) John’s trademark bass is nowhere to be found, which makes sense when you consider that John admitted years later that all he remembers about making the album is smoking hash oil (yikes). What the album lacks in John, though, it has in Nick, and by the truckload. I had a conversation in the mid-’90s with the founders of one of the first Duran Duran fan sites to hit the Internet, and they declared Nick’s work on Liberty to be his best. I countered that it was his most work, but not his best. They all stared back at me with blind hatred.
As for the newly christened members’ contributions, they don’t fare much better. Warren’s free-form solo to the title track goes against the song’s mid-tempo funk groove (plus, it’s awash in a sea of reverb), and his dueling solos on “Read My Lips” do just that, fight against each other rather than work together. On other songs, such as the (ill-chosen) first single “Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over),” his guitar is barely audible. And again, I must say, poor Sterling Campbell; scoring the Duran gig after a stint in Cyndi Lauper’s band, he surely had no idea that he would have a different drum sound on every single track.
Despite this laundry list of roadblocks, though, there are two moments where the band comes together and rises above the din. The minor-key rocker “Serious” is one of the band’s most underrated songs, and Kimsey finally lets the band members breathe for a change. The song has since gone on to be one of the band’s favorites, so much so that when they decided to release an expanded hits compilation in the late ’90s, “Serious” was the song chosen to represent Liberty, despite peaking at #48 on the UK charts and not even charting in the US. The stark ballad “My Antarctica” is the other standout moment. John’s bass finally comes to life, Nick keeps the atmospherics to a minimum, and Kimsey leaves Campbell’s drums the fuck alone.
The commercial and critical reaction to Liberty was, as you might imagine, not kind, though it inexplicably scored a three-star review from Rolling Stone. The band chose not to tour in support of the album, and Campbell left the band the following year. Duran’s next album, 1993’s Duran Duran, a.k.a The Wedding Album, would be their biggest hit in ten years, and in the song “Love Voodoo,” Simon acknowledges his sins of the past. “The queen of sensuality, you shelter me from liberty / It’s nothing short of piracy / That’s not to say it doesn’t please me sometimes.” From your lips to God’s ears, Simon.