The arrival of the missing Duran Duran albums on Spotify was welcome, if not necessarily important, news. While most, if not all of us, own the albums, I’ll be the first to admit that I use Spotify in the car when I don’t have time to grab a few CDs. Having an album like Astronaut so easily accessible led to a deeper listen this week and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it. For some fans, myself included, Pop Trash sounded like a band in their final death throes and that uneasiness definitely hindered my appreciation of Astronaut at the time.
The reunion of the Fab Five arrived as popular music was experiencing a huge moment of 80s nostalgia which set the band up perfectly to re-claim their throne as pop-rock royalty. “Riding in on a wave of hi-gloss dance music, glitch-heavy electro/acoustic hybrids, and disco-fueled punk noir” was how Pitchfork described 2004, and really, that sounds a lot like Duran Duran at their best. Some of the best albums of 2004 – The Killers, Franz Ferdinand, Scissor Sisters, and Interpol, all owe a certain debt to the post-punk possibilities of late 70s music which is the same fertile soil from which Duran Duran grew. Everything was set for Duran Duran’s triumphant return and if expectations were a little too high, you can forgive a fanbase yearning for the glory years. While Astronaut doesn’t hold its own with Rio or even Seven & the Ragged Tiger, it does erase all memory of Pop Trash and prove that Duran Duran have a place in contemporary music.
Just getting the entire band in the same studio seemed an impossible proposition for so long that one really wonders what those first few sessions were like for each member, especially Andy Taylor. The old tensions would certainly come back within a few years but for a brief time, the band sounds like they were clicking with the same energy that once made them the most important band in the universe. Looking back now, I missed how clever the album title is. A sly nod to MTV’s golden years, the astronaut was a common image from the channel’s opening clip to the silver moon man trophy given out at their awards show. No band really dominated MTV quite like Duran Duran and now they were back exploring new ground as more experienced astronauts.
When Astronaut works, it really works. “(Reach Up For The) Sunrise” echoes “Planet Earth” and makes for a perfect re-introduction of what the five members are capable of together. Andy’s guitar work and Roger’s drums are instantly recognizable and a welcome addition to what Nick and Simon had been up to without the three Taylors. “Want You More!” has the over-produced busyness of the Seven & the Ragged Tiger album which isn’t terrible but there is a single in there if you pull a few layers away. While “What Happens Tomorrow” is certainly single-worthy, it sounds a lot more like a third single (think “Do You Believe In Shame?”) and the momentum of the album lost some steam upon its release. Had the label pushed “Nice” out sooner, I think Astronaut would have had a longer album cycle with radio.
The title track and “Finest Hour” are also excellent tracks that find Duran Duran comfortable in 2004. However, “Bedroom Toys” making the final album over some of the tracks the band had on the shelf such as “Beautiful Colours” really makes you who was making the final decisions. The band often runs off-course when they try to push too far into R&B territory and “Bedroom Toys” is an example of that. For fans of the Wedding Album and Thank You, I can see it having some appeal but it doesn’t fit into the flow of this album. For a band that went through some lean years musically and emotionally, having only one real disappointment on a reunion album is actually a spectacular achievement. Not only did Astronaut prove that Duran Duran fit into the modern-day music universe, it gave us one final chance to appreciate what the original five could sound like together. It might have been a short-lived reunion but Astronaut put the band back on solid ground and the album continues to sound great over a decade later.