Simple Minds is one of the most confounding bands in music. They’ve always dreamed big, yet they were also just a little bit outside of the mainstream. Even the handful of hits they managed to score in the mid-‘80s – with their own material, anyway – didn’t jive with the songs they were rubbing elbows with on the charts. Where other bands were singing about going all the way, Jim Kerr was singing to God. Simple Minds are a pop band, and they are a cult band, and one could argue that it is their cult status that has lifted them during the lean years. They, like Tears for Fears, are one of the few bands of that era to enjoy commercial success without losing their cool factor.
Having said that, Simple Minds could really use a hit right now. They seemed poised to strike in 2005 with the Bob Clearmountain-mixed Black & White 050505, but the label canceled the US release of the album mere weeks before its scheduled release date. (The album is available as a download or stream.) The band’s 2009 album Graffiti Soul was a victim of bad timing more than anything; the legacy alternative bands (what a strange thing to type, legacy alternative bands) were adrift in a music climate that didn’t know what to do with them.
This brings us to the wild, wonderful year that is 2014, where several of those legacy alternative acts are mounting a movement of sorts. Midge Ure released his solo album Fragile, the Primitives stunned everyone with the fantastic Spin-o-Rama, the first single from Bryan Ferry’s upcoming album is his best work in over a decade, and Spandau Ballet took SXSW by storm, earning rapturous praise for their film Soul Boys of the Western World as well as their live performance. Timing, for the first time in decades, is on Simple Minds’ side, and they made it count: Big Music, the band’s sixteenth studio album, has a decidedly modern sheen and machines aplenty (which admittedly seems wasteful with a basher like Mel Gaynor behind the drums), but the new sound works for them. They’re still taking risks; what a wonderful thing that is.
Most of the attention is going to the fact that Kerr worked with Chvrches’ Iain Cook on the first single “Honest Town,” and how very Chvrches-like the song is. This is true, but the two also sneak a sly nod to Simple Minds’ “Someone Somewhere in Summertime” in the pre-chorus, making the track a near-seamless tribute to both bands. This and “Human,” with its nod to the thunderous drum sounds of Sparkle in the Rain, are the clear frontrunners for hit potential, yet they’re the least interesting moments here. The title track is a deceptively simple roof shaker, “Blood Diamonds” is a touching love letter to a lost friend, and “Kill or Cure” boasts some nifty vocal sampling paired with a ferocious drum track from Gaynor. Even the melancholy material is playful, with guitarist Charlie Burchill unleashing these unexpected walls of sound that show that even with the additional keyboard work, Simple Minds is still a rock band.
The album’s biggest surprise, though, is their cover of a song that, with respect to the dead, seemed like it was written to sell beer. Simple Minds toured with the Call in 1986, and the band pays tribute to the Call’s late frontman Michael Been by covering his 1989 song “Let the Day Begin.” Indeed, calling this a cover is understating things a bit: what they actually did was find the stadium anthem buried within Been’s well-intentioned ode to the common man, and send it flying to the heavens.
My stepbrother Tony summed up Big Music thusly: “It’s a warm embrace from an old friend that you haven’t seen in a long time. They must have decided to make a record specifically for fans like us.”
What he said.