The Cherry Lipstick Album Reviews: Liberty
Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over) *
All Along The Water ***
My Antarctica *****
First Impression *
Read My Lips *
Can You Deal With It **
Venice Drowning ***
The absolution of a new decade dawned. Here was another opportunity to draw a line between the Fab Five era and a brash, reinvented Duran. Ever since the hard exit of Andy and Roger in '86, they had ricocheted from one album to the next, often gaining admiration from the party loyal but derision and confusion from critics and their former followers. Now, having attempted renewal as an independent force, Simon, John and Nick intended to remain relevant in a recreated 5-piece union.
In an immediate effort to stem the haemorrhage of revellers, Simon attempts to rejuvenate the devout. “Hey!” he shouts, over the tin sounds of an electric piano. “Pick it up! This’ll get you out of your head!” It’s all very enthusiastic, and quite a departure from the melancholic and introspective side 2 of its predecessor. However, the exaltations to enjoy oneself embody instruction rather than seduction, more evocative of a step aerobics class than a call to get down and dirty, “Keep it up,” instructs Simon. “That’s right – here we go again!” Oh God, please kill me with silence.
Liberty was recorded in a rush of endorphins at the end of the Big Thing tour, an enthusiasm, no doubt, that had sped the decision to elevate Warren and Sterling to full band member status. This was no mere paper exercise: it meant they were invited in to the writing, producing and recording process. Warren has been clear since that he had felt frustrated during the Notorious and Big Thing recording sessions as he did not have the right to intervene in the creative process.
The trouble was that whilst this was portrayed by the band as being a new album by (another) new 'Duran Duran', this was not, and could never be a partnership of equals. Back in 1981, Duran Duran had evolved and learnt its craft behind closed doors for three years. Contrastingly, this revision of Duran was a blended family riddled with unresolved power politics, a family without the incubation period or inclination to present a united front in anything more weighty than soundbites. Duran to this day see their stock as freshness and vitality, but the ongoing paradox is that they actually trade on legacy. This is the line that Warren, Sterling, and more tellingly, the fanbase, struggled to straddle in the aftermath of the Fab Five’s implosion.
Arguably, Liberty represents one of John’s many attempts over 20 years to craft the 'perfect' band for himself. Like most of his other ventures (bar the one that was successful in 1981) it champions blatant machismo. Rather like the Neurotic Outsiders, the predominant musical direction aimed to be a down-and-dirty, good-time band who could swagger and sway across the musical landscape. No more of the electronic, dance-infused, funk-pretentions from the previous two albums.
In contrast to Notorious, which illustrated brotherhood, tenacity and unity so beautifully in its promo material, the cover of Liberty tells a different story. John and Sterling seem disorientated in the background, whilst the other three seem embarrassed by their environs. Nick clenches a fist unconvincingly and the two new guys are half the size of the random good-time-gal. Meanwhile, the album title is absent-mindedly perched in the corner, so loose are the boundaries of convention.
All of this landed in the middle of a summer in which the Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays’ laid back dance vibe jostled with the imminent explosion of the grunge scene. The Liberty sound and look (let alone the brand of ‘Duran Duran’) was therefore as far from the mood and ethos of 1990 as it was possible to get.
Which bring us back to the defiant exclamation at the start of Violence of Summer. It’s retro-sounding back beat is reminiscent of the Casio keyboard Santa delivered the Christmas you thought you’d be Nicola Rhodes. This leads to a chorus that is one of the weakest in the Duran canon, as the band’s desire to communicate their new direction deflates around us. It was the lead track, lead single and leading the image of the carefree, band-on-the-run, libertarians. The video said it all. No more exotic beaches in our videos – here are bikers! No more calling it paradise - here are blond babes sprawled all over us! Its deserved failure is seen in its total expulsion from the official Duran history books: never played live, not on any compilations.
There are familiar flavours of brass for the more sensual title track, Liberty, echoing the sound of Notorious, but perhaps also making it a distant cousin of Too Late Marlene. The highlight is a lush bridge leading to a call and response vocal and contrasting funked-up melody in the chorus. The mid-8 lets the track down. Simon leaves the warmth of the opening minutes for Warren to attempt something more expansive. However, his solo excursion is overcome by the staccatoed and synthesised piano, a sound that regrettably percolates through much of the album. One could consider the title track the thematic glue which holds this disjointed album together. Simon sings of freedom from moral judgement and freedom in sensual pleasure, and how this finds expression within the conflicting goals of security and desire.
We are only three tracks in, but the journey becomes “a ride I wanna get off” as the album careers in opposing directions from track to track. Hothead is a leaden stew of funk-infused bad rap, jazz organs, vacuous female vocals, multiple newsfeeds, political ranting and overbearing guitar riffs. Be warned folks, this and Drowning Man are the parents of illegitimate child Reportage (political rock, allegedly) should we ever get to hear it. Hothead briefly held the title of worst track recorded by Duran Duran until, 23 minutes later, Read My Lips began.
Serious’ status amongst the fans has risen remarkably over the past few years. To some it is the great lost Duran track, with its charming guitar chords and soft chorus. It is a simple song with an encouraging, rather cheeky message. The backing vocals seem to bring the whole band into the song to good effect. By the third minute it feels like the song might take off, but then it rather stalls with over a minute of an extended instrumental break.
Sterling Campbell is wonderfully front and centre in All Along The Water, driving the rhythm section. This seems like an appropriate point to acknowledge his significant contribution to the band in so little time. One really has the impression that he was the scaffolding rather than the retrospective reinforcement to the song-writing process. There is a running joke in the film Spinal Tap whereby the drummers continuously die in bizarre circumstances, two from spontaneous combustion, and one from choking on vomit (but not his own). The point being that drummers are often disposable and irrelevant, and perhaps what makes Liberty quite unique is his stamp is all over it, some small compensation for his absence ever since. The track itself is lyrically one of their most explicit oozing with sexual frustration, and steroid-pumped virility, though mysteriously it is shrouded by fans in a thin veil of acceptability. Contrastingly, the discussion about male (as opposed to female) bodily fluids in Venice Drowning will raise more than eyebrows.
We are next lurched on the Liberty waltzer from delicious smut to desolation and despair on the high point of the album, My Antarctica. An appreciation of its sonic canvas can be found by listening to the extended instrumental, Throb. The song’s barren wilderness is laid bare, and Warren’s skill is not diminished as best supporting actor. Nick – at last - really shines here, crafting ambient multi-textural soundscapes for our auditory delight. The track explores co-dependency, longing and loneliness in long term relationships (“cold and sheltered”) and its schizophrenic presence as a life support (“hearts beating” and “one life pumping”), yet also a prison cell (“and you will stay here with me”) analogous to survival in the harshest environment on earth. Somehow, that synthetic top melody is absolutely fitting here, its clinical sound evokes the stark, snow-white landscape of an intensive care unit, rhythmically beating to sustain something far deeper, the pained beauty of a shared existence. The gorgeous, plaintive vocal of the chorus thaws the song's frozen heart, resonating with unfulfilled longing and grief. The complex symbiosis of vocals, melody and lyric showcases an artistry that is one of the triumphs of Duran’s career.
From these heights, we next hurtle at bladder-emptying pace on the fairground roller coaster towards the death of music.
On First Impression, Simon’s vocal jumps prolong the nausea as we descend into the parallel universe of ZZ Top. This was earmarked as the third single, and, along with Serious, was exhumed for the Wedding Album tour. Bombast and swagger are the order of the day. Warren’s amp went all the way to 11. To hear a far superior version, listen to The The’s “Infected” (released in 1986…).
Read My Lips has a claim to being one of the lowest musical points in Duran's career. Across (another) mess of guitars, aggressive vocals and horrible chorus, the band clatter their way self-satisfyingly to the finish with a track that seems to be playing on a variable speed drive.
Can You Deal With It imagines itself as a punk-funk fusion in which Simon goads an imaginary audience with his bating vocals, whilst the band groove away behind him. Tellingly this was resurrected by John in his solo live set in the late 90s. The song is, weirdly, topped and tailed by a tune that provides the track with some merit. Lyrically, it explores the nagging insecurity about what’s “normal” in sexual behaviour, political correctness versus carnal desire… yes it’s a pervy track. Whilst that can be hard to separate from a multitude of other such tracks, this one is brazenly on point - connect and accept and love your inner pervert, or put more poetically, love yourself and the physical expression of yourself. It is perhaps the only track with a logical sequencing, coming as it does before the very erotic Venice Drowning.
The vocal delivery in Venice Drowning, by contrast to Can You Deal With It, is heavy, hot and sexy, conveying naked desire atop a bed of funky light guitar riffs. The verse gains momentum as the song flows towards the chorus. Its increasing force evokes rising waters, coupled with the erotic moaning of sensual submersion. It's not the finest hour for the other four members of Duran but the star of this song is the lyric and vocal delivery. It is fair to say it’s not a fan favourite. THAT word “jism” and the draping of sexual expression in religious iconography sit uncomfortably with many. God in sex is not a new concept (waves to Freud), but remains controversial. The other issue is it presents lyrical sexualisation of a man, minus the visual that focuses mostly on the woman. In other words they forgot the paddling pool, skimpy bodysuit, shaving foam and pillow fights. This is a reminder of sexual double standards that persist to this day.
Downtown has a curious hold on this listener's attention as it brings an album that aspires to be this tough-rockin', hard-lovin' album into a dark and unpleasant place, plausibly of drugs and sex. If there’s a message in the closing statement of the album, it’s that all the liberties of which we avail change us permanently. Downtown takes its place in quite a long line of Duran's album-ending downers (think Seventh Stranger, Edge of America, Sin of the City, Undergoing Treatment, Still Breathing).
Liberty was an album that promised to move heaven and earth. There was at least a game-plan: to resurrect Duran Duran as a new 5-piece to summon their own rebirth. They shunned and annihilated the foundations of their former glory in order to rebuild it on their own terms. The low points all revolve their desire to be something deliberately different, mostly around increased guitars (for which the whole band share responsibility). Added to this, the acrobatic layers of production leaves a trail of frustration in its wake. What Liberty does share with their earlier releases is a sense of urgency and burst of creativity. Duran Duran repackaged their brand in swollen members, a driving tempo and “wham, bam thank you ma’am” dialogue. And there are high points - the times in which Duran Duran can't help but find their sensitive, poetic and melodic side. It was this, along with further personnel changes, that proved to be the way out from Liberty's creative dead end.
Liberty is the 12th retrospective album review by Cherry Lipstick. The others are:
Seven and The Ragged Tiger
The Wedding Album
Red Carpet Massacre
Still to come to complete the series:
All You Need Is Now, Duran Duran (first album), Rio