Themes--Volume 1: March 79-April 82
Themes--Volume 2: August 82-April 85
Melody Maker, September 1990
By Simon Reynolds
It's a trick of history. Just as it's difficult to listen to U2's genuine peaks without looking for the seeds of the fatuous flatulence of Rattle N' Hum, so too is it nigh on impossible to remember that Simple Minds could often be inspirational, now that Jim Kerr is lost in the realm of platitudinous populism.
The first two volumes of Themes, a rather unnecessarily deluxe collection of their 12-inch singles (each colume contains five silver discs, where two would have sufficed), both invites and confounds speculation as to exactly whenabouts Simple Minds went astray. When did heroic vagueness degenerate into vague heroics?
The standard interpretation is that all went awry when Simple Minds exchanged fascination with Europe for the challenge of America's wide-open spaces (and markets). "I Travel" was doubtless inspired by the confusion of being on the road on the Continent, but nonetheless manages to render this tawdry experience as a form of spiritual nomadism: perpetual motion as an eternal exile from everyday life. Musically, the track sounds a bit dated: it's basically Eurodisco, a Moroder pulse-matrix and a chorus that sounds uncannily like Sparks's "Beat the Clock". The calvacade of "Celebrate" sounds far more alien and unsettled. It's not as schizo as side two of Empires and Dance, but it's still a celebration of travel as not so much a means of broadening the mind but of breaching it: the story of an "I" scattered and saturated by stimuli.
Simple Minds didn't exactly deflect all the prog rock accusations by choosing Steve Hillage to produce "The American", and despite the slap-bass and sequencers, there was no disguising the rockism of this dirge. But "Love Song" has real funk propulsion beneath its swirling vistas. It's a love song to geography ("America is my boyfriend"), a kind of reversal of Lyotard's idea of the lover's face as a landscape in which you lose yourself. "Sweat In Bullet" is another surge of panoramic, only slightly stiff-joined funk-rock: the line "rolling and tumbling/mission in motion" is valorously unspecific, there's a vague desire for some kind of crusade or Holy Grail, but Live Aid and Mandela Day are still a long way off. Thank God.
The glistening "Promised You A Miracle" was Simple Minds' breakthrough (into the charts and out of the fug of progressive rock production). Its brimming anticipation ("golden daybreak wondering/everything is possible") perfectly captured the feel of the moment, as the charts were engulfed by the accessible-but-weird New Pop of The Associates, Human League, Japan, et al. "Glittering Prize" is possibly even more ardent and awake. These two singles and the shimmering New Gold Dream album were Simple Minds' moment of perfect equipoise. For a moment, they hovered in mid-air: between grandeur and grandiosity, nobility and pomp, abstraction and woffle. And then came the plunge…
Well, not quite. Sparkle in the Rain is supposed to be when the rot set in: a regressive step back from pop to stadium rock. But the ambient bombast of "Waterfront" is actually pretty magnificent in a Jim Morrison sort of way. And "Up On the Catwalk" is probably Simple Minds' s most underrated single, their last bout of topsy-turviness and abstract euphoria, before the descent into facile transcendentalism and blunt, unwarranted affirmation ("Alive and Kicking", etc). But "Speed Your Love To Me" is as bad and boring as "Don't You Forget About Me".
Thereafter, Kerr and Co exchanged their glory daze for Springsteenesque glory days; the quest became concrete and coercive; finally, they abandoned wonderlust/wanderlust for roots, responsibility and homecoming to the heartwarming hearth. From outlandish alienation to "a big country" and "the little people". Pah!