Expectations for a Duran Duran reunion with all five original members are admittedly low- those classic early albums, Rio and Seven and the Ragged Tiger, notwithstanding. It has been 21 years, which was more than enough time for the remaining members who soldiered on to have dragged the name into a hole so deep that no reunion, no matter how good, could possibly repair.
Even the best musicians lose touch not only with reality but also with their songwriting craft. After decades of spotlights and spoiled rock star egomania, things invariably fall apart. It's like gravity. Everyone falls victim at some point. There are no winners in the game of aging, and that goes double for musicians. For anyone to think Duran Duran – all members of which are in their early to mid-40's – would be exempt from the 'past its prime' syndrome is utterly deluded.
Astronaut is more than Duran Duran's comeback album. It's a make or break, do or die record. For every platinum album, overplayed video, banged elite model, or sold out tour, there have been twice as many colossal failures and deadly miscalculations. In fact, Duran Duran's career post-Live Aid (the last time the original line-up played live before the split) has been riddled with so much commercial embarrassment that even the strongest egos would have a hard time bouncing back.
Reunions of this nature are impossible to ignore. It's a massive case of rubbernecking. Everyone slows down to see how bad the damage is and then drives away. Longtime fans – mostly overweight women in their mid-to late 30's – have been wetting themselves with glee since the announcement that the original band would reform. However, those fans grounded in reality held their excitement in check, realizing that, at this point, it may be too little too late.
Even now Simon LeBon has one of the best voices in pop music, though it's a tad more nasal than it used to be. All of his dramatic tendencies aside, the man can belt out a tune like few others. He's in an upper echelon with Bono and Sting, vocally. He's always sounded frightened and in a state of emergency when he hits a chorus, and no one sounds quite like him. Lyrically, LeBon has consistently catered to your inner poetic license, mixing utter nonsense with the macabre and creating the perfect foundation for teenage imaginations to run wild.
Unfortunately, on Astronaut he cuts back on the melodramatic mystique in favor of bland clichés. His patented cadence is instantly recognizable, though, as he still has an ear for sticky melodies. His delivery is less urgent than in his heyday, but it still can make the tiny hairs on your neck stand up when he hits certain notes. Too bad he's devolved so much as a lyricist.
Musically, Astronaut covers an impressive gamut of styles from disco funk to stadium rock to dance-floor pop. Duran Duran has never shied away from knicking the best bits of other people's designs (Chic, Bowie) and fusing them into their own, but it's hard to sound vital and current when your band helped define an era two decades past. A 21-year absence is multiple lifetimes in pop music. Your momentum is likely irretrievable, and it's hard to be viewed without a blanket of nostalgia covering your progress.
Astronaut kicks off with 'let's get our career back on track', adult-contemporary, radio-friendly pap. Balls to the fans. "Reach Up For The Sunrise" is devastatingly awful. Catchy, yes. Good, no. LeBon drops the lyrical equivalent of dirty diapers all over the listener: "Reach up for the sunrise/put your hands in to the big sky", which causes the requisite dry heaving. An early version of the song appeared on the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy soundtrack, which is where it should have stayed to whither in all its gaudy shame.
"Want You More" follows and is easily the best song on Astronaut. The Faint would kill to have written something this urgent and catchy. Why isn't this the single? Modern rock stations might have actually played it. Lyrically, it's iffy, but LeBon's chorus is undeniable. Andy Taylor's machinated guitars buttress Nick Rhode's carousel of synthetic sound effects. It truly sounds modern and it's a whirlwind of retro-goodness, proving Duran Duran can still write frighteningly good pop music when it gets its head out of its own ass.
The title track is pure infectious pop thanks to Andy Taylor's quick acoustic fretwork. LeBon moves fluidly over the jerky rhythms. He's a seasoned front man, and he knows how to drive a tune. If only he had something to write about. "What Happens Tomorrow" is chock full of arena-rock hooks and perfect pop sensibilities, but the sentiment is so mundane it's hard to invest anything emotionally: "We’ve got to believe/it’ll be alright in the end/you’ve got to believe/it’ll be alright my friend." Ack.
Being former teen heartthrobs is an awkward position for a band that wants to be taken seriously all of a sudden. Apparently, MTV won't touch anything by any artist over 19, so being in your mid-40's is an automatic death knell, even if you did help invent the channel. Duran Duran seems unfazed, however. And with as much excitement as it generated last year for its sold out reunion tour, MTV might not even be a necessary tool anymore- what with the internet and all. Incidentally, there are more than 50,000 websites devoted to Duran Duran.
Astronaut doesn't come close to ranking with the music that made the band world famous, but it has moments that make it easy to remember why the band rode such a wave to begin with.