(Reach Up For The) Sunrise ***
Want You More ***
What Happens Tomorrow ****
Bedroom Toys *
Taste the Summer ***
Finest Hour ***
One of Those Days ****
Point of No Return *
Still Breathing **
Astronaut is the byproduct of nostalgia and ambition, an attempt to capitalize on the momentum of the reunited, unrelated original lineup in the early 2000s. I believe many Duran fans, especially those who left during the 90s, overrate Astronaut. They overlook its flaws because it is from the original lineup (much like the more obscure 90s work is dismissed because it’s NOT the Fab Five). Many of these Duran Duran fans fled in the 90s, and to them, Astronaut represented a homecoming. Nostalgia for the classic lineup and all of those great shows in 2003-05 overshadows the actual quality of the music. To me, Astronaut is an experiment gone horribly wrong; a collection of songs mostly inferior to some amazing work left on the cutting room floor.
If you’re reading this, then you know the context: In 2001, after sixteen years, Duran Duran booted guitarist Warren Cuccurullo and reunited with John, Roger and Andy. Having not been in the same room since 1985, the Fab Five decided to not only reunite, but write a new album. It would be the follow-up to 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger; classic Duran for the new millennium. So they wrote a bunch of new material, and then decided to test it with a series of concerts in 2003.
The tour was a huge success; the new material was a mixed bag. “Virus” was the best of the songs debuting in 2003. An industrial sounding rock song, its heavy guitar was a logical and pleasant follow-up from the guitar-heavy late 90s output. Of course, it did not make the final album a year later. “Still Breathing” is a plodding, mediocre slow song in which Simon laments the “Warren years.” It did end up making the album, as the closing track no less. “What Happens Tomorrow” is an uplifting, mid-tempo song that, while not quite reaching the emotional highs of “Ordinary World,” is a worthy successor. It did make the album, albeit heavily edited for radio play and with far less guitar. And finally there was “Reach up for the Sunrise,” a song that felt half-finished but with catchy potential. It would end up being the lead song, and single, from the album and a staple (albeit in remixed form) in every subsequent tour, although the popular version we hear now is a hybrid of a remix and the album version.
A fifth new song would make its debut as the band continued to play shows in 2004, despite not having finished the album. Named “Beautiful Colours,” it is arguably one of the best Duran Duran songs ever. An uplifting anthem, driven by Andy’s guitar and John’s bass, testifying to the beauty of diverse peoples and lives, it is exactly what 21st century Duran Duran should sound like. Do you want to guess if it made the album? Indeed, while the band would lend the song to a FIFA video, they would testily reply to fans (via Ask Katy) that it was “unfinished” (just do a search on the Ask Katy site on Duranduran.com and you can feel their annoyance come through with every Q&A about it). It, along with a number of other worthy tracks, continues to languish on the cutting room floor.
The band worked on the album for several years, and these sessions spanned three producers, including Nile Rodgers. (It’s interesting how, during the Paper Gods publicity, every aspect of Nile’s 30+ year association with Duran has been highlighted or revisited, except his work on Astronaut, probably because most of it ended up left off the album). In October 2004, “Astronaut” was finally released.
It begins solidly. “(Reach up for the) Sunrise” is an upbeat, catchy song worthy of 21st century Duran Duran. The band seemed to have worked out some of the problems from the 2003 live version; Roger’s drums now feature more prominently in both the beginning and bridge, which is reminiscent of Girls on Film. Andy’s guitar is more subdued, but overall this version is a vast improvement over the live 2003 version. The band would further improve it with a remix by Jason Nevins that highlights the guitar more; as noted, a variation of this remix remains a staple in the live set to this day. Also noteworthy is that “Sunrise” is clearly the only post-1993 Duran song that pretty much everybody knows at concerts. Even the casual fans recognize it, and that undoubtedly influences why it has remained a staple in the live set for the reunited lineup.
“Want You More” is a fun second song. I tend to be obsessed with second songs because, while the band insists it loves all songs equally, clearly album sequencing gives some insight into how they feel about the material. “Want You More” is not buried on the b-side, but featured prominently as the second track, the first non-single. Presumably not about Simon’s relationship with Warren, the song leans heavily on Andy’s rhythm guitar, and Nick’s synths compliment it perfectly. John and Roger are in fine form as well; “Want You More” could easily have been a lead single and is one of my favorites on the album.
“What Happens Tomorrow” introduces the first mid-tempo number into the mix. An uplifting, optimistic song in the spirit of Duran Duran, it is nonetheless a neutered version from what was played live in 2003. John’s bass drives the proceedings and Nick’s synths, again, compliment rather than annoy. (Not that I would dare suggest that there are ever Duran songs when they annoy. Ahem, Cinderella Ride). But the third verse is completely chopped off and versioned into a dreadful b-side known as “Silent Icy River,” and the guitar solo is shorter and less powerful. “What Happens Tomorrow,” even in its diminished album version, is still a great song, but it deserved better.
And then we come to the title track. The album had to be named something, and perhaps the band was trying to subliminally capitalize on the cover art from Decade. (Remember us? It’s the original lineup! We had all those hits in the 80s! When there was a space shuttle! With Astronauts! MTV’s symbol was an Astronaut! Get it? Did we mention it’s the original lineup? Look at the unremarkable album cover! It’s the original lineup! These songs are going to have harmonies and not kick the sh*t out of you with experimental guitar!)
Musically, “Astronaut” is unremarkable. More Andy rhythm guitar, more starts and stops, lyrics about having sex with aliens and a 9/11 twin towers reference thrown in as well. It’s not the worst song ever, but certainly not worthy of being the title track of the reunion album. And maybe therein lies my issue with this big “comeback” album—it’s not good enough by Duran Duran standards. The band has had many title tracks over the years and there are none I would ever describe as “unremarkable” (not even “Red Carpet Massacre” or “Liberty!). And my dismay at this song (and album) is further compounded by knowing about all the material which was capable of so much more!
And so we move on. If you’re hoping for a little more rock guitar, keep hoping. “Bedroom Toys” is a very funny song built around a funky Andy guitar riff. On the one hand, I did get a big kick out of all the rubber chickens that were tossed on stage during the 2005 tour as this was played. On the other hand… Beautiful Colours, Salt in the Rainbow and a host of other songs were left on the cutting room floor while “Bedroom Toys” made the cut? I am not against Duran Duran having fun or trying something different (just see Sunset Garage on Paper Gods, which is a fun, catchy song that works and is quite worthy of that album). I can certainly see how Andy’s slinky guitar riff would inspire Simon to come up with that lyric. It just doesn’t do anything for me, despite some very well written and compelling arguments from a fellow Cherry Lipstick contributor to the contrary
The middle of the album picks up some steam with two more standout tracks. “Nice,” which we can assume is not about Simon’s relationship with Warren, ended up being the third single (in some countries at least) and, like “Sunrise” and “Want You More,” sounds like 21st century Duran Duran should sound. John and Roger’s rhythm section drives the song; Andy continues his fine guitar work, Nick’s synths compliment rather than dominate. “Nice” is one that I wish would return to the live set.
“Taste the Summer,” I'm happy to admit, is one that grew on me. Its funky, disco vibe is fun; lyrically and musically it’s very evocative of summer. The harmonies might be annoying, but they work for me. Unlike the streamlined, risk-adverse album version of “What Happens Tomorrow,” “Taste the Summer” is fun, catchy Duran Duran unafraid to be themselves.
Much of the latter half of Astronaut includes slower numbers, clearly written and influenced by the September 11th attacks that occurred during these sessions. While there are some good songs, there are also some clunkers, and on the whole, my judgement is that the ballads on Astronaut are not up to the standards set on any other Duran album, before or since.
Finest Hour slowly build and builds and builds…to fade out. Although the band always insists that songs like “Beautiful Colours” are unfinished, “Finest Hour” feels that way more so. “Chains” is my favorite of the slow songs on the back end of Astronaut. It has echoes of “Out of My Mind” with its haunting lyric and synths.
“Point of No Return” is the band’s most overt 9/11 song, with a siren-like synth line and milquetoast guitar to compliment the milquetoast lyrics trying to blame no one and everyone for the attacks. If you’re from the northeast U.S., not a song for you.
“Still Breathing,” one of the live tracks that debuted in the 2003, closes the album. It’s not awful; Nick’s synths are in full, haunting Arcadia-form, but the song still feels lacking. Maybe it would have worked better with more of an acoustic sound instead of yet another Andy riff worthy of the Doobie Brothers. (And before you accuse me of being too harsh, remember that Simon himself referenced that Andy had been playing “like the Doobie Brothers” in the 2009 Songbook interview). I always love the beginning with just the synths and drums, and then the guitar kicks in and I’m done.
Buried in the end of Astronaut is a gem, however; “One of Those Days” stands out as one of my favorite cuts on the album. A mid-tempo number, it sounds like a distant cousin to the indy-rock 90s sound (which is interesting considering that it was the last song written on the album, at least according to the liner notes. One wonders if it is a window into the sound of the material on Reportage, the shelved follow-up album?).
In the final analysis, Astronaut is a frustrating missed opportunity. And while the Cherry Lipstick album reviews strictly prohibit discussion of b-sides, one cannot consider “Astronaut” and the 12 tracks that made the cut without also wondering about the additional songs that didn’t. What kind of thinking ever favours “Bedroom Toys”? Astronaut had the potential to rank as the band’s greatest album. We have been left with a so-so album, a mixed bag that is indelibly linked to the 2004-05 reunion tour (which actually was amazing). If I wanted to go to space and only had room for a handful of Duran’s albums, I’d leave Astronaut on the launch pad.
This is the 8th Cherry Lipstick album review.
The first 7 that have been completed for this website are:
COMING NEXT: SEVEN AND THE RAGGED TIGER