Back to the Sugar Shack: Liberty Turns 29

Another Duraniversary popped up this week on the socials. Has it really been twenty-nine years since Liberty arrived, somewhat uncomfortably, in our lives? Often dismissed as the band’s worst album, it was a difficult album for me to grasp upon its release. The 80s were over, that much was clear and where the new decade was headed remained unclear. Caught between decades, Duran Duran’s Liberty remains an important piece of the band’s history, and might even be a more consistent listen than the commercial juggernaut that followed it.

As far as album openers go, Duran Duran has done far worse than “Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over)”, and it made for an effervescent first single. The 12” single was a wonderful introduction to the band’s new direction. The artwork and the video clicked for me, and I was excited about the album. Ultimately, it never wormed its way into my bloodstream like previous albums had. Some of this was the new decade and exciting new bands arriving on the scene. However, Duran Duran also bears some responsibility for putting forth an album where insecurity and over-confidence lock horns.

Overconfidence or insecurity?

The over-confidence comes through in the guitars of Warren Cuccurullo and the lyrics of Simon LeBon. Playing against the melody, as if to prove a point, Cuccurullo’s work disrupts the otherwise perfectly pleasant “Liberty” while LeBon’s socially charged lyrics on “Hothead” are all a bit silly coming from a band that capitalized on the decade of excess better than most. While the band revisits that sentiment a bit on “Too Much Information”, the song rocks so hard that I give them the benefit of the doubt. A cola company is sponsoring the war? Well, they also sponsored your biggest tour. We are winking at each other, right? 

The insecurity comes through whenever LeBon tries to sing about sex. Unless your Prince, rhyming jism and catechism sounds creepy and desperate. “Take Me To Your Water” doesn’t exactly conjure pastoral images of an English countryside and “Read My Lips” unfolds like a drunken come-on by a once cool geezer in a once trendy club. Listening almost three decades later, I hear a writer trying to recapture his mojo by becoming edgier. While it worked in 1990 for Madonna with “Justify My Love”, LeBon’s poetry was never meant to be so direct and explicit.

Liberty and The Wedding Album, side-by-side

It isn’t hard to pick “Serious” and “My Antartica” out of this album as the crown jewels of Liberty. I’d trade “Ordinary World” for “My Antartica” in a set list each and every show. It is more “Duran” than “Ordinary World” even if it didn’t re-ignite their commercial fortunes. The sophisticated “Serious” ranks up there with some of the best music on Notorious and still sounds like a hit single to me. Having hung my heart on the importance of Andy Taylor’s guitar, the rock-n-roll stomp of “First Impression” remains an absolute high point even if the song is, ahem, a bit like this Lords Of the New Church song (https://open.spotify.com/track/3Em6rJJUdozR2qj6jnAZ5u). If nothing else, it finally gave Sterling Campbell’s youthful energy room to move.

But, really, is Liberty a more consistent listen than the wedding album as I hypothesized earlier? Side by side, I find about six songs on each that I am excited to hear more than a few times a year. The production of Liberty is, even by the band’s own admission, dreadful. The rumor of demos being out there on a bootleg sounds tantalizing (someone hook me up!). Much like the fabled Reportage, a different production might have yielded a far different result for the album and the Duran Duran story could be totally different. However, the wedding album has some filler on it and the cover of “Femme Fatale” should have been enough to sink the whole idea of a covers album. 

For your reconsideration

Without Liberty, the band would not have been forced to reconsider everything. Commercial flops have a way of doing that. Returning with a hit single in “Ordinary World”, the confidence of a band rejuvenated was enough to sell us on an album that wasn’t a huge artistic leap from Liberty. If anything, revisiting Liberty on its 29th anniversary makes me appreciate how important it was in shaking up the band. We learned that Campbell was not a good fit, that LeBon’s lyrics were best when shrouded in metaphors, and that the band could write sophisticated pop songs when they didn’t push too hard to fit into the foreign landscape of a new decade. For their so-called worst album, that is a pretty fabulous outcome! 

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