Simple Minds Exhibit Staying Power On “Direction Of The Heart” DLX UK CD [part 3]

simple minds direction of the heart digibook
BMG | UK | DLX CD | 20220 | 538826472

[…continued from last post]

Of the three songs here that Cherisse Osei played drums on, “Natural” was the clear winner for me. In all cases her drums were fine; it was the songs that either sank or swam. “Natural” managed to stay afloat easily as it was enlivened by a unique sounding guitar tone from Charlie Burchill with distortion doubled on delay from the left channel to the right, delivering a fat sound that contrasted greatly with the synth string patches that were tilted in the direction of Eastern Bloc Romanticism. Pulsating synths and an interesting vocal production on Kerr’s voice had subtle vocoder undercurrents on his delivery. Giving the track a shadowy cinematic vibe that was most welcome for what was a deep cut on this album.

The skittering drum programming heralding the oft-discussed “Planet Zero” gave it an enervated buzz that was unconcerned with playing safe with the song, which had been kicking around the Simple Minds camp for at least eleven years. In 2011, it was due to be recorded in a session with Steve Hillage that ultimately came to naught, sadly. Yet eleven years later, we finally hear the song and it’s still got that something else that made for a great energy burst as the album moved forward to its conclusion.

Charlie’s guitar tone was decidedly avoiding the stadium as he seemed to be investigating his early [excellent] textural vibe; ceding the spotlight instead to the fiery backing vocals from Sarah Brown in full Valkyrie mode as she sang of the “whole world on fire.” It was fascinating to hear his guitar functioning not unlike a didgeridoo in the song. The gulf between the jittery music bed and the calm, centered, and subtle vocals from Jim Kerr made for a fascinating juxtaposition from this band.

Alas, the band had chosen to end the standard album with another cover of the American band, The Call. I have never understood the admiration some have for that band, and Simple Minds had already recorded two different covers of “Let The Day Begin” in 2009 and 2013. To this, we can add what is hopefully the last dip into The Call’s portfolio with the bluster of “The Walls Came Down.” It’s possibly the one song by The Call you may have heard before and it ended the album on a decidedly sour note. Fortunately, Jim Kerr saved his Bonoesque delivery potential for this song; sparing us on the other, far better songs this album had to offer.

The album ended there on LP and standard CD, but we opted for the DLX CD, which came with two more tracks. The first was ostensibly the title track, which rarely gets cut free from the album in practice, but I can recall it happening once before with “Sugar Tax” from OMD which was not on the album of the same name, but instead was a B-side from that period.

“Direction Of The Heart,” had, in fact, begun its life earlier as the B-side to the “Magic” 7″ single bundled with the deluxe version of their last album, “Walk between Worlds.” At the time I thought it was a song of unfulfilled promise; definitely B-side material. After hearing the second try at it included here, it now seems grand in retrospect, because I have never heard anything by Simple Minds that sounded this shockingly amateurish.

It began with a beguiling intro built up slowly that seemed to be just fine, but once the distorted tremolo guitar from Burchill entered the mix like a drunken party crasher, things rapidly devolved from there. The stunningly maladroit vocal effects liberally slathered over the first verse rendered the singing almost completely unintelligible. Who let this out of the basement?! In his defense, there did seem to be a few plug-ins that Charlie forgot to throw into his mix here. At least I hope he mixed it, because I’ve never heard anything this jarringly poor from the hand of nominal mixer Alan Moulder. But don’t just take my word for it, but I’ll warn you that you can’t un-hear it!

After that farrago, how could the minor yet genuine pleasures of “Wondertimes” come up smelling like anything but roses? If I were the sort of person who compiled playlists, I would cut “The Walls Came Down” and end the album with this track, full stop. Astonishingly Ged Grimes [the band’s bass player] and not Burchill played the bass here, but one would be hard pressed to discern the difference by the evidence here.

The first play of this one was a decidedly underwhelming affair. The thing was, for this long-time fan, I’d grown used to small, incremental change and refinement for the better from this band over the last 20 years as a given. I had also always felt that the band were holding their energies back deliberately, so they would always have a strong hand to play later in the game. Which caused me no end of angst over the years. My first listen to “Direction Of The Heart” suggested that maybe that was not the case and they had been pushing hard to move the needle slightly between their last five releases. [we’re not counting the dreaded “Acoustic” album] And that this time they had hit the brick wall and were now [gasp] …backsliding somewhat.

But a single play to base a review on is dangerously thin ice, so of course I found myself playing the album at least 25 times in the period of its arrival and the writing of these thoughts. Eventually its strengths and weaknesses have settled in my mind to give this album its due. I also made sure to review the earlier albums in my listening and admittedly, they still are much more vibrant releases; there’s no denying it.

At its best, this album contains what would be deepcut material for an album like “Graffiti Soul” or “Big Music.” At its worst, it matches the occasional flubs to be found on “Big Music” or “Black And White 050505.” But the area where “Direction Of The Heart” lets me down the hardest is in that if failed to contain any songs of the caliber of “Liaison,” “Stay Visible,” Moscow Underground” or “The Signal And the Noise.” The sort of material which clearly stands with the best Simple Minds have to offer in their illustrious career.

I can’t expect another “Sons + Fascination,” but it has seemed that over the last 20 years that the band have honestly tried to reconnect with their unerring fusion of Art Rock, Disco and Krautrock that marked their imperial period. Just one song of that caliber lifts an entire album. The 5×5 period where they played a tour playing songs only from their first five albums seemed to have re-energized them and had given them a new appreciation for what preceded their stadium years.

In this outing, significantly, I can hear no Krautrock DNA in the mix. Making their appropriation of the “Empires + Dance” backward “N” in the cover logo fraudulent and wrong headed. “Planet Zero” of all the material edged the closest in that regard, but without the underpinning of a suitably motorik drum track, it could not quite reach that standard.

The other burden that this album labored under was simply that it’s 85% the efforts of one man; Charlie Burchill! And his laptop. Sometimes, the results sounded suitably inspired. I can find little fault with cuts like the excellent “Act Of Love” or “Human Traffic.” On the other hand, I can only hope that Burchill was drunk when he put “Direction Of The Heart [Taormina 2022]” to the hard drive. And in between those extremes, there was a lot of what I’d term perfunctory Simple Minds. Certainly better than some performances and songs over the years which could give me hives, but less than inspiring.

Of course, this album was recorded under lockdown, but it hardly differs much from the MO of the band in the last dozen years that sees their live band largely shut out of the recording of the material in any case. Burchill is a guitar player, first and foremost. He’s the pack horse leaned on heavily to make entire albums. In an ideal situation Simple Minds would have a full band to steward their projects. Instead, it’s all down to Charlie. He’s stretched thin. It says a lot that the deluxe booklet had photos of people like Berenice Scott, and Gordon Goudie who play with the band live, and yet their names are entirely absent from the recording and its packaging! Someone new to the band, just picking it up and looking at it, would be rightly confused at exactly who these people were. And therein lies a problem.

At least Ged Grimes got some licks in on the new album. His two tracks are among the better songs here. I’d be interested in seeing how they could work with the great John Leckie again. In self-production they fail as many times as they succeed here. They could use more guidance that only a true producer could give them.

I still find it hard to believe that a strong song like “Vision Thing” [which will pop up in my mind for hours at a time] was saddled with such a bland and middle of the road arrangement and production. Maybe another set of ears would hear the results the same way I did and send them back to the drawing board to give what was obviously a strong song the care and attention that it merited. As an opening salvo it was shot through with weakness where boldness was called for.

And yet, this album, like its much stronger predecessor, entered the UK album charts at an impressive number four. Of course, two weeks later it was off the charts entirely, but that is how legacy acts roll these days. They will never begin to compete with the Sheerans and Swifts who own the charts now. So the band no doubt consider album number eighteen “job well done, lads and lassies!” So I don’t expect that these words will convince them that I think their legacy deserves more.

Jim and Charlie will both be 63 by this month’s end. They are grandfathers. At their stately album every four to five year pace, I would wager that they have one, maybe two albums left in them at this point. They seem calicified in their working methods that see them attempting to write, arrange, and record whole albums by themselves, but a glance at the songwriting credits in the 21st century reveal no shortage of co-writers, largely from outside of the band. The live band are generally used a props but the optics of them being held at arms from the writing process belies the vision of Simple Minds as a band.

When Simple Minds were truly a band, they had vast quantities of rocket fuel to see them chart a spectacular artistic arc unmatched by others. Jim Kerr has revealed that BMG has now bought out their catalog, so Kerr and Burchill are now well-paid troubadors. The engagement with Ged Grimes was encouraging on “Direction Of The Heart” and there’s more where that came from. Here’s hoping they might have the wherewithal to act a little recklessly and consider making Simple Minds a real band again while they still can, and see what magic results.


About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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6 Responses to Simple Minds Exhibit Staying Power On “Direction Of The Heart” DLX UK CD [part 3]

  1. SimonH says:

    Pretty much agree with you, but have to confess I haven’t listened as much as you have mainly because, as you say, there is a strong feeling of the perfunctory.

    Something I’m noticing more and more is that I really struggle with modern recording techniques, they just lack depth. Was so pleased to buy the new And Also the Trees album and to see it was recorded by the band in a studio set up in a barn… it has dynamics and feel that are nowhere to be found on a laptop record!

    Also, as I get older I find it harder to stick with an album that doesn’t feel likely to repay the time invested, whereas when I was younger I would be happy to assign the time. When there is so much great music to spend time with, it’s tough!

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      SimonH – I think that the distinction in feel that we’re discussing will be something that only old people like us will even have a clue about, and when we’re gone, those that are left will never know the difference! What I’ll call synthetic recordings are so much cheaper and easier to make that their ascendance leads to an air of inevitability. Certain genres lend themselves more readily to these methods. OMD get away with this more easily as technopop is halfway there to begin with. Though their records could also sound much better! With Rock music like Simple Minds it’s more problematic. It could be one of the main reasons why Rock has declined so rapidly in the 21st century for reasons besides fashion.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ade.W says:

    It’s as I suspected, another ho hum album from one of my favourite bands. Have they been making the same album since black and white ? I think so. If a track from this can fit on Graffiti soul then what does that tell you. ? I hardly ever play walk between the worlds or Big Music. These albums have no real identity they are just made because thats what they do. Your right about modern day technology and the sound of new albums but I have a problem with OMD’s euro disco sound as well. I know it’s because I’m a certain age but I will admit that I am trapped in the glory that is Empires/Sons/New Gold.

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Ade.W – I’m not necessarily trapped in the glory of ’80-’82, though it is their undeniable peak! I see the band with three phases; each very distinct. Imperial Era [’79-’83], I Don’t Want To Ever Hear This Again Era [’85-’93], Jim + Charlie era [’94-’22] and the final one, while not a patch on the first era, still goes a long way when held next to the middle era. Sometimes there’s an aberration like “Acoustic” or “Our Secrets Are The Same” that call back to the middle era out of time. And we get the wind knocked out of us but eventually recover. Just the slight improvement from album to album was enough to tide me over. But it feels like crumbs doled out when there was once a feast, it’s true. And on “Direction Of The Heart” the crumbs were noticeably smaller and fewer in number. And there were none of the bits where the flavors were concentrated enough to stimulate the salivary glands. I think there’s new sounds on “Direction” which go a long way in making it the fair album that it was. Tracks like “Planet Zero” or “Human Traffic” don’t really sound like identikit Minds. They almost sound more like Lostboy! material, which I think is a great thing. That album, more than any other in the modern era, has had the greatest success for my ears. It points to the peril of relying solely on Burchill for the music bed. Sooner or later, the bone can no longer make stock.


  3. Mr. Ware says:

    Totally spot on with this review. I would encourage everyone to check out the live versions of “Vision Thing” and “First You Jump” on Later with Jools Holland. It completely transforms these songs. Hopefully going forward they’ll properly record future material as the kick ass band that they still are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Mr. Ware – I did hear the Later! live version of “Vision Thing” and it made a big difference hearing that sad zombie track from the album infused with some life. Let us remember that when Virgin signed the band and they were going into the studio to record their second album for the label, someone had the peerception to suggest that the band record live in the studio to carry over the energy of their explosive live set to the disc. And look what we got in return!


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