Someone Else Not Me **
Lava Lamp ***
Playing with Uranium ****
Hallucinating Elvis ***
Starting to Remember ****
Pop Trash Movie *****
Fragment / Mars Meets Venus **
Lady Xanax ***
The Sun Doesn’t Shine Forever *
Kiss Goodbye / Last Day On Earth ***
To think it nearly came to this. Not being “the band to dance to as the bomb drops,” but with a whimper, the former World Champions playing out their days in front of ever-dwindling crowds. For those of us who went through these times, there is a vicarious thrill of knowing that we Kept The Faith, and suffered with the band. The very few who bought Pop Trash on its first day of release carry an honour of unity unlikely to be felt by those who attended the triumphant Madison Square Garden shows in either 1984 or 2005.
Pop Trash is an end-of-century last grasp at the fleeting Wedding Album resurgence that the band squandered. Duran Duran were by now 7 long years from that high, and had accumulated during that time one hated covers album, one lost band member and one album that failed to get a release in Europe. A veritable 1-2-3 of clitter, clatter, clutter down the ladder of success and joy. Despite the every growing sounds of silence that scream “it’s over, guys!” they know no other way, and gear themselves up for what must surely be one final tilt at the windmills.
The Pop Trash recording sessions started years earlier, when Nick and Warren (the saviour-turned-dictator) started messing around during downtime from Duran tours as part of their “TV Mania” side project. Two of the best songs on the album — the erstwhile title track Pop Trash Movie and powerful Last Day On Earth — were written in the mid-90s. The former was tried out (but not used by) Debbie Harry; while the latter was pitched (and turned down for) the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. Someone Else Not Me was born out of a riff Warren came up with during the filming for the Electric Barbarella video in 1997. The band had to videotape what they came up with because they had no other way to capture the sound. Hallucinating Elvis was a title Simon had come up during the filming of the Perfect Day video in 1995. [He wore a suit during that shoot and thought of a character called “Hallucinating Elvis” but never got beyond the concept. He was later a little put off when Nick and Warren presented him with the fully written song]. The paucity of off-cuts and b-sides demonstrates the hold that Nick and Warren held over the album. Pop Trash was recycled TV Mania material that had already been recorded. It might more properly be labeled “TV Mania, featuring Simon Le Bon on vocals” than a Duran Duran album.
The near total fragmentation of the band is reflected in the album title. Along with the similarly reality-baiting title of ‘Big Thing’, ‘Pop Trash’ finds Duran taking another horrible back-swipe at themselves. The imagery of the album cover and CD inner-sleeve portrays the gaudiness of success: Vegas, 70s Elvis, a blinged-up car, and a plastic-fantastic model. The band sprawl themselves in self-hate across the world in which they have become immersed. The years of relying on the glory days to sell a ticket finally subsumes and engulfs them. As the name ‘Pop Will Eat Itself’ had been taken, ‘Pop Trash’ would have to do. This is Duran’s Death Album – most of the tracks summon up end-days imagery. One of the final words on the album is ‘goodbye’.
Back up at the top of the album we find Someone Else Not Me, and a similar theme of loss. Simon’s lyric (and this also turns out to be one of the few songs on the album he actually wrote) is a mournful admission that a past lover is better off with someone else and he has to let go. Clearly, the band were looking to catch the lightning-in-a-bottle they had achieved with Ordinary World. The 90s incarnation of Duran Duran tended towards ballads or indie-sounding rock songs. The main exception to this trend, 1997’s Electric Barbarella, was a commercial flop. However, the lyrical content here conjours up introversion and self-loathing, rather than the outward inspiration of Ordinary World.
It’s a solid song, overall; Warren’s guitar has almost a country twang (something that will recur with less success later on in The Sun Doesn’t Shine Forever) and Nick’s synths are almost shockingly understated. It is not, though, as Simon repeatedly said during the Pop Trash press junket, “the best song we’ve written in the last ten years.” Only if you are living in alternate universe where Serious, My Antarctica, Ordinary World, Come Undone, Breath After Breath, Out of My Mind, Midnight Sun, and Falling Angel - amongst others - were never written.
So, between thinking they might have their next Ordinary World on their hands, and that it was really the only song they wrote together, Someone Else Not Me became the default lead single, and opening track, on Pop Trash.
Lava Lamp brings an unexpected bounce to proceedings which is most welcome. It tries really hard to be that catchy, upbeat song you’d expect from Duran Duran. This incarnation of the band rarely produced these types of songs (while the post-2001 version, for all its anti-guitar bias, seems to be able to release these types of songs effortlessly — Nice, Cry Baby Cry, Runway Runaway, Face for Today and so on). 1999’s “Let It Flow” tour got its name from a line in Lava Lamp, and it is prominently positioned as the second track, so the band obviously thought highly enough of it. Interestingly, Lava Lamp evokes the ‘60s with its title, use of sitars and line “I’d love to turn you on.” This playfulness with the past contrasts hugely with most of the album which looks back with far greater regret.
Playing With Uranium quickly darkens the mood with Warren and Nick complimenting each other. Here is an excellent example of punk-Duran (see also Careless Memories) and is provided with a kick-ass chorus driven by Warren’s guitar. It was certainly lyrically relevant (based on a true story about a kid who built a reactor in his backyard). Unlike Too Much Information, Playing With Uranium doesn’t overstay its welcome. The longer outro after the second chorus means the song does not kick on in its final third to a more satisfying conclusion.
Hallucinating Elvis was for a long time touted as the album title, and it carries a similar theme to the name eventually chosen. This completes Simon’s late-90s trilogy of Dead Rock Star songs (following those dedicated to Michael Hutchence* and Kurt Cobain on Medazzaland). All three died tragic, tacky deaths associated with their being overwhelmed by celebrity and it entails. Simon explicitly channels this with the personal message that he is hallucinating Elvis. But this is not the Elvis that was the bright young champion of the mid 1950s. Instead it’s the insular, jaded, drugged-up, sleep-deprived recluse of his dying years. The chaos associated with this part of Elvis’ life is evoked through the beeps, swirls and echo-vocals in the closing refrain, as if we are swerving down a corridor of a fluorescent-lit mental health ward. Musically it’s something of a love-hate track, but thematically it drives the first half of the album onwards.
Starting To Remember is a short, dreamy, almost Beatles-esque ballad with a unique time signature. It’s a song Simon wrote with Warren, interestingly about the death of Warren’s father. Some may find it uplifting, but the final line is something of a throwaway after the grief-stricken, depressive tone of all that has gone before. From the depths, the message grapples for an answer that you’ve “got to believe” – there is no certainty, and no redemptive answer.
Pop Trash Movie closes out what has generally been an above-par opening half with the last great Duran Duran track of their first 20 years. It is the only original Duran Duran song not to include Simon in the credits. Simon’s throaty, end-of-the-road opening vocals encapsulate the diva lost in a dirty, cracked dressing room in a provincial theatre, dreaming of better days. Every line crackles with longing, loathing and remorse.
The fourth minute may be the greatest 60 seconds recorded by the band. The swell of the strings, the glory of the reproachful chorus, the bile and spit in the word “never!” culminating in the sneer of “yeah!” Fame and glory, as the song says, is never quite what it seems. In an alternate – and perhaps more honest - world, it would be this, and not Rio, that is the last song at the last ever Duran Duran concert.
After the draining, emotional blast of Pop Trash Movie, the interlude of Fragment is a necessary palate-cleanser. Unfortunately, though, the standard of the first half fails to be maintained as the album generally slides down in quality, demonstrating that this unit has reached creative and emotional bankruptcy.
Simon phones in his vocal for the slight Mars Meets Venus. The lyrics are as lazy as they come. Nick penned the song based on dating ads. Like, literally, that’s what the song comprises. Musically, it’s built around a Warren guitar riff, with a forgettable bass line, some Nick synth lines, and Warren solos (i.e. another TV Mania song). Sally Boyden’s background vocals redeem things a bit, and the song also eschews the middle 8 for a rather turbulent ending.
Lady Xanax means Pop Trash is the third Duran album in a row - after Perfect Day (heroin) and Medazzaland (midazolam) - to feature a song specifically about a depressant drug. Simon’s wistful vocal perfectly compliments Warren’s acoustic guitar. Nick is just present enough with his orchestral synths to not overwhelm. The song kicks into gear during the chorus with heavier guitar; in fact, this transition seems more natural and successful than the several slow-fast-slow attempts found on Medazzaland. Once again on this album the band choose a rather protracted final chorus and fade out in lieu of a middle 8. The band deserves credit for eschewing the pop song radio format, but by Lady Xanax, it does feel like they’ve pulled this rabbit out of the hat one time too many. Some find echoes of Arcadia in this ballad, while others find it a throwaway track. Count the co-writers of this review among those who differ.