Simple Minds - Sparkle in the Rain
Big, fat, extras-dripping legacy re-releases are like buses. You wait around for ages and when one finally arrives, it's an over-priced piece of junk. Oh yes. God only knows how our cultural identity came to be defined so powerfully by the past, but we are where we are and if our thirst for re-packaging really does tell us something too unpalatable to properly examine, our acceptance of lazy re-issues only encourages that head-in-the-sand approach. That said, every now and then, an artist with either too much heart or too little cash makes the proper effort. So, thumbs up Simple Minds, who mark the 31 (?) year anniversary of the release of one of their best albums with a set that, for the most part, delivers quantity and quality.
Sparkle in the Rain is, in many ways, a 'bridging' album. Originally released in February 1984, it all but trashed the art school, post-New Romantic aesthetic that had underpinned their output to date. Its predecessor New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) had flirted with the 'big music' of contemporaries like U2, but their sixth album all but abandoned tricksy art pop in favour of stadium-centric anthems. Just two years later, with a handful of songs premiered at Live Aid, their next album Once Upon a Time would see them perform a high gloss, soul-pop streamlining of their sound and make the step up to stadium-fillers in their own right.
So here are Simple Minds while they were still possessed by a sliver of weird. Three decades on, Sparkle in the Rain is as gloriously self-important, unspeakably pretentious and eminently likeable as it ever was. Its ten tracks buzz and rattle, and the unrest that had threatened to split the band in previous years had all but disappeared. How many bedroom axe heroes took up the bass guitar purely due to Derek Forbes' one note intro to 'Waterfront' we’ll never know. But the song was to open their live show for years to come and its template of bustling rhythm beneath dense layers of synth and clipped guitar characterised the album as a whole. There is little space on Sparkle in the Rain: there is sound everywhere. Producer Steve Lillywhite, encouraging the band to contribute their ideas around a shared creative process, rather than their previous 'my bit + your bit' approach, nudges them a half step away from bluster.
It's barely dated, too, oddly. Instrumental closer 'Shake of the Ghosts' is still paying off its debts to side two of Bowie's Low but that's art crime of the easily forgivable kind. 'Book of Brilliant Things' and 'Speed Your Love To Me' are pop juggernauts, minor anthems where Kerr's arms-aloft lyrics ("Thank you for the voice, the eyes and the memories shine…") walk that fine line between skewed poetry and all-surface non-sequitur. (In hindsight, it's tempting to see Kerr's lyrical approach as a constraint he never really found a way around until the band's more overtly political work would allow to speak more freely.) A trio of high spots still shine: the tender, quasi-religious ballad 'East at Easter'; the barrelling intensity of 'The Kick Inside of Me'; and 'Up On the Catwalk', perhaps still their finest moment. A dizzying collision of the band's key components, it still sounds possessed, electric and vital.
Alongside the original album remastered, there's a collection of b-sides and remixes from the time: curios, rather than essentials. A DVD remixes the album into 5.1 surround and bungs in three promo videos (largely, as you’d imagine, horrible.) Of more interest to collectors, though, will be two discs of live material from the 1984 tour. Recorded at Glasgow Barrowlands, it's to the band's credit that they’ve allowed it into public view with no cleaning up. You like your live recordings warts-and-all? This one's so rough it makes Dire Straits' famously untouched Alchemy sound like it was re-recorded by Kraftwerk. Flailing for nearly every note, you have to give Kerr credit for going about his work with such breathless commitment. But with him adopting the out-moded approach of introducing every song ("This is…'The American'!") and exhorting the crowd, during every pulsing mid-song break, with "Let me see your hands!" (the 80s version of "Make some noise Margate!"), it all disintegrates into little more than a firm nudge back towards the album itself. Shame. Perhaps, unlike the original recording, which still makes strong claims for being their creative peak, you had to be there.