The Cherry Lipstick Album Reviews: Medazzaland

Medazzaland ***

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 ****

Oh, Medazzaland!

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.