Musings on music delivered when I dig myself out.

Duran Duran -- Astronaut
Epic; 2004

When thinking about the recently revamped Duran Duran, I think it's appropriate to quote LL Cool J: "Don't call it a comeback." Much like Prince's glorious and much-lauded "return" to music, it's important to point out that Duran Duran hasn't gone anywhere. Since the release of their first record in 1981, the band has put out albums more or less consistently, most recently releasing a number of live shows within the last year. Astronaut is Duran Duran's 11th album of original material, one that presumably looked to update their sound for a new generation. And while this record does sound like it was made for the 21st century, it also sounds like it was made by soulless automatons. Oops!

Those of you that own or have at least heard part of Duran Duran's breakthrough album Rio may be in for a surprise with Astronaut. Opener "(Reach Up For the) Sunrise" is a busy and energetic song that would fit well on the soundtrack of an exercise video. "Want You More!" would make for a fine Mountain Dew commercial, and has the same emotionally devoid qualities. This isn't the band their many fans might remember and cherish. As the rest of the record continues on, it seems like the group lost their creative juices in a high stakes poker game, and has enlisted the help of noted pop producers Don Gilmore and Dallas Austin to try and fill the void. And as with the rest of life, you get what you pay for; in this case it's heavily produced, low impact pop.

If this is what Duran Duran thought passed for quality pop music these days, we're royal screwed. Singer Simon Lebon sounds less like a British playboy (all puns intended) and more like a ragged boy band member, his voice listless and digitized to high heaven. Guitar lines are tossed through endless filters to the point that they've been robbed off all their rock. The only appealing factor in the band's repertoire these days is their massive collection of keyboards and synths, which don't make the band particularly more human, but do make the cheeseball melodies easier to swallow.

The album's lyrics offer no cause to rejoice either, as they sadly match the shallowness of Astronaut. While Duran Duran has never exactly been known as the most literary group, older songs like "Rio" and "New Religion" at least showed a desire to write something creative. The lifeless lyrics of "Nice" or the mishmash jumble from "Bedroom Toys" ("Now you [sic] washed up, beat smashing / grab no receipt / takes the platinum off your shine / Lazy bed star, la di da, petty bourgeois") provide none of that. Their peppiest songs offer the least substance and would be a decent match for some Bally's commercial.

For all the supposed liveliness the band shows on Astronaut, the few high points of the record show up in their mellowest tunes. Burbling walking bass lines and the tentative guitar strums of "Chains" hint at their earlier material and shows a more relaxed side of the group. The slightly more up tempo "Point of No Return" is also a bit looser, is recognizably less produced, and effectively puts to use its newfound breathing room. Capping off the album is the ballad "Still Breathing," another song that teases at the former depth of Duran Duran's songwriting skills. It's a shame they chose to write more songs of the cutie-patootie-fresh-and-fruity variety than of these thoughtful tracks.

It seems unlikely that Astronaut will succeed in making Duran Duran relevant again. Using hired guns like Gilmore and Austin has made the band sound like an overproduced and hyper-caffeinated version of The Killers instead of reinstating them to heights of former glory. While it's sad that the band is unable to recreate the zest of their youth, it's also a sign that maybe it's time to hang up the synths for good. Hopefully they'll listen this time.

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