Back down to three. The look and sound of a band that is refusing to give up.
Album Review. By C.K. Shortell
Big Bang Generation *****
Electric Barbarella ****
Out of My Mind ****
Who Do You Think You Are? **
Silva Halo *
Be My Icon ****
Buried in the Sand **
Michael, You've Got A Lot To Answer For ****
Midnight Sun *****
So Long Suicide ****
Undergoing Treatment ****
With that, we enter the veritable minefield that is Duran Duran’s 9th studio album. From the general lack of John Taylor to the graffiti strewn album cover, Medazzaland offers a mixed bag for the mainstream Duran fanbase. With that in mind, be warned: I come to praise Medazzaland, not bury it. This is not revisionist history or some mid-life revelation that has struck me twenty years hence. I enjoyed this album when it was released, and largely feel the same way about it two decades later.
First, let’s set some context for this release. Medazzaland represented the unwelcome dawning of Duran’s third act of the 1990s.
Act One was the failure of Liberty as the decade dawned; the only Duran album to flop (at that point in time) and the harbinger, as it turned out, of the band’s lack of future commercial success.
Act Two was the improbable comeback on the wings of The Wedding Album. The world tour, the MTV Unplugged performance, two hit singles, and some overdue and well deserved critical acclaim are all highlights of 1993-94.
But rather than capitalize on this success with new material, the band instead decided on their much-maligned covers album, Thank You, in 1995. Without a hit single or tour to support it, Thank You faded into obscurity, taking Duran Duran with it. John Taylor drifted away to the Neurotic Outsiders in '96, before finally exiting stage left. Taylor would later reveal in interviews that he had been ready to leave the band years earlier, but the commercial success of The Wedding Album reeled him back in.
Now a trio, Duran Duran’s Third Act of the 90s began: The TV Mania era. The balance of the band had shifted to Nick Rhodes and Warren Cuccurullo, with Simon LeBon now the odd man out. Rhodes and Cuccurullo were a prolific duo, churning out all sorts of music, much of which would comprise the Medazzaland and Pop Trash albums, while other material would be released fifteen years later as the TV Mania project. LeBon was reduced to part-time lyricist (and not even sole vocalist come the time of the album).
The album artwork (unwittingly?) reinforces the new band dynamic. Images of the three remaining members adorn the graffiti strewn cover, with three pictures of Nick, two of Warren, and one of a somber LeBon in the corner, as if he is looking down at the proceedings and wondering what the f*** happened to his band.
The back cover reinforces that this isn’t your mother’s Duran Duran, featuring the Rio album cover defaced with more graffiti.
The graffiti isn’t limited to the artwork. Duran '97 is lyrically light years removed from last chances on stairways and dances on the even tide. Medazzaland laments the band’s place in the 90s, as aging former stars (“Big Bang Generation”), castigates the critics who never cut them a break (“Who Do You Think You Are?”), mocks obsessed fans (“Be My Icon”), laments Taylor’s departure (“Buried in the Sand”), and even contemplates never-again achieving success (“Undergoing Treatment”).
And yet despite all that, I still like Medazzaland, graffiti and all.
Let’s start with the tracks that John Taylor did have a hand in, namely “Big Bang Generation”, “Midnight Sun” and “Medazzaland”.
“Big Bang Generation” is, for me, another of those smash hit singles that never was. This was Duran Duran’s “New Moon on Monday” for the nineties. John’s bass holds the song together while the listener tries to figure out where Nick’s synths end and Warren’s guitar begins. Admittedly, the beeps and bops and special effects get a little tedious by the middle 8, but the soaring chorus and fade out, with the guitar in full bloom, makes up for it. John has stated that the reunited band had been trying to write a powerful anthem for years, and he feels they never quite hit the mark. “Big Bang Generation” has the anthemic quality that Taylor is yearning for. It’s upbeat and catchy, and yet subversive. LeBon muses about “falling into space at the end of time” and being “alone” and “alien,” reflecting both the band’s nosedive off the radar after The Wedding Album, as well as their status as one of the few “80s bands” still alive and making music in the face of the approaching millennium.
“Midnight Sun” is a hauntingly beautiful slow song buried near the end of the album. Lyrically, it is somewhat reminiscent of “My Antarctica,” dealing with a feeling of isolation and loss in a relationship. But here, the protagonist isn’t frozen or paralyzed in the relationship; he wants to be released (“let me go I want to fall”), all the while affirming that he will find his way back because “you shine like the midnight sun.” It’s tempting to wonder if John had any hand in these lyrics since they seem to reflect what he was feeling about the band. Probably not, given the lyrical quality of his solo work. (Let me be clear, I like his solo work and it is very heartfelt and passionate and raw. But he’s not winning any Ivor Novello awards for “Feelings are Good” or “Good Reason to **** You.”) Cuccurullo’s guitar is understated and flows beautifully with the song, as it builds to a crescendo at the end.
And then we come to “Medazzaland,” recently cited on this website as the worst Duran title track ever. I’m not going to argue with that – but there is a distinctive JT bass line driving the song. It’s no wonder that the band chose to keep the song after he departed. It is, though, here we must note that Medazzaland was a self-produced album, with TV Mania and SYN (Simon’s production company with Nick Wood and Yasmin) credited. “Medazzaland” would surely have benefited from an impartial producer pushing Simon to come up with lyrics and melodies. (Indeed, how often did we hear during the Paper Gods publicity blitz how Simon was pushed in this regard?) Instead, we get Nick on vocals, which if nothing else makes for a fun trivia question. “Medazzaland” is a missed opportunity; a piece of music that deserved better.
Now, we move onto the 'TV Mania' material. “Be My Icon” is a favorite of mine. Lyrically, this was the beginning of Nick taking on some of the songwriting duties, and he didn’t disappoint, taking aim at… well, US, I guess. Warren is at his best, basically going apeshit with the guitar. (Sorry folks, I am not a musician. I just know I love the guitar on this track, especially in light of some recent Duran tracks!). “Be My Icon,” like “Vertigo,” fits well into the running order as a powerful song that kicks off the second half of the album.
“Electric Barbarella” is as close as the nineties lineup ever came to replicating the sound and spirit of early Duran. This was evident to me a year later when I gave “Greatest” to several of my non-Duran friends as a stocking-stuffer for Christmas. They couldn’t believe that “Electric Barbarella” was a new song. It is also, significantly, the only song from the late 90s lineup that the reunited Duran Duran have brought back. (I heard a bootleg recording from a 2006 concert in Glasgow and it sounded like Andy completely murdered it, so maybe it would have been better left relegated in the 90s). The video is, well, best left for another review.
“Out of My Mind” is the haunting, mid-tempo single that could have found huge success had the album been released in 1995 hot on the heels of their huge comeback. Rhodes’ synths drive the song and perfectly compliment LeBon’s story about a haunting loss. Fans could be forgiven for thinking it was about him missing John; it was, rather, about his late friend David Miles. As on “Midnight Sun,” Cuccurullo’s guitar compliments, rather than dominates.
“Michael...” was written, of course, for INXS singer Michael Hutchence before he died. It makes it even more poignant. The acoustic guitar gently drives the song, with Rhodes’ synths complimenting it during the chorus. It’s like nothing else on the album; it’s certainly not “electronica” (in much the same way that “Box Full O’ Honey is not hip hop on RCM) and yet it works in its simplicity.
“Michael” gives way to the beautiful “Midnight Sun,” previously discussed, and then we get “So Long Suicide.” Every active band in the 90s was contractually obligated to write a Kurt Cobain tribute song, and this apparently is Duran’s. That being said, the alternating fast and slow tempo (something they would also do on “Who Do You Think You Are?”) works well here. Lyrically, this has always felt like the sequel to “Ordinary World.” The search for peace has led to a place, but it’s there that he rejects death and embraces life. (“I’m scared of being ordinary…and you know it’s hard to swallow / but life goes on.”) If this song is truly about Cobain, it’s interesting that its protagonist makes a different choice.
The album closes with “Undergoing Treatment,” whose mild acoustic funky vibe is, yet again, unlike the rest of the album. It’s one of Simon (or Nick’s?) more clever lyrics, and a great album closer. It means that this uneven album ends strongly. In fact, I would argue that Medazzaland’s final tracks are among the top closers of all 14 Duran studio albums.
Of course, while we’re in Medazzaland, we’re obligated to visit all of it. I’d like to ask “Who Do You Think You Are?” the same question. “Who Do You Think You Are?” is well-intentioned, but it still feels forced. Duran Duran has set a high standard for their ballads but it falls short by lacking the haunting yearning of “Midnight Sun” or the power of “So Long Suicide.” Lyrically, it seems to be an attack on music critics, a theme that “Undergoing Treatment” will follow up on (much more cleverly) later in the album. (Music critics? Really?) Musically, the band seemed to be obsessed with matching up tempo choruses with slower verses, although as noted earlier, it works better on “So Long Suicide” than it does here.
The low point of the album is the dreadful “Silva Halo,” a filler track that, along with b-side “Sinner or Saint,” was presumably was one of the songs written for the 1997 movie “The Saint.” Like the song “Medazzaland”, “Silva Halo” feels unfinished, a concept they decided to shoehorn into the middle of the album to break up its two halves. Unlike “Medazzaland”, it’s not an especially strong piece of music. I will acknowledge that I was pleasantly surprised when “Silva Halo” opened the 2001 Up Close Tour shows. Live, it’s much better, especially with drums.
And finally, buried in the middle of the running order is the ode to John’s departure, “Buried in the Sand,” a song that would work much better as an obscure b-side. Its middle eastern influences don't work nearly as well here as “Breath after Breath” does on The Wedding Album. I remember hearing it live on the ’97 tour, and it was an absolute crowd killer.
Commercially, the album bombed and wasn't even released in Europe. There was no European tour. But journeying into Medazzaland is not the hot mess that many Duranies would have you believe. It has guitar-driven dance music, beautifully haunting slower songs, and, yes, some clunkers thrown in for good measure. I wouldn’t rank it ahead of any of Duran’s 80’s output, but by the same token, this writer places it in the upper tier of everything they’ve released since.