BY XAVIER JOHNSON
Nostalgia is a powerful tool that bands use both consciously and subconsciously to affect their audiences in different ways. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though oftentimes peddling nostalgia for its own sake can yield lackluster results. When done right, playing upon the idealized past can be an effective way to give the music added context and dynamism. It allows artists to express their influences and provide fresh takes on well-explored sounds.
For older bands, nostalgia can be leaned on too much by retreading old ideas and refusing to push the envelope. This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel, but using their expertise to play with an established formula they’ve supposedly mastered at this point. For Simple Minds, the standout Scottish rock band with numerous hits to their name, nostalgia is used well in their new record Direction of the Heart.
Simple Minds was the biggest thing going on in Scotland back in the 1980’s and remain well-respected in the European rock scene. The rock group had four albums reach number one on the UK charts over the decade. Their brand of rock and roll prioritizes creating moments with dense and layered instrumentation punctuated by earworm choruses. Vocalist Jim Kerr, 63, and guitarist Charlie Burchill, 62, are the principal members of Simple Minds, being with the band since its inception over 40 years ago. They are joined in this modern iteration by bass guitarist Ged Grimes, drummer Cherisse Osei, vocalist Sarah Brown, Guitarist Gordy Goudie, and keyboard player Berenice Scott.
With 18 albums under their belts, Simple Minds know how to make a fantastic tune and has a particular sound they excel in. This isn’t the point in their career where it’s time to switch everything up, but that doesn’t mean this is a simple retread of past albums. Their previous record, 2018’s Walk Between Worlds had plenty of interesting ideas. It also is distinctly different from what is delivered on Direction of the Heart. While their last effort did have some synth-rock elements, it sounded fairly modern with its song structure, giving it a similar feel to a modern alternative rock record with an infatuation with older arena rock.
Direction of the Heart is soaked with 80’s synth rock tropes, making it much more of a throwback to the band’s younger days. The production lets the instruments breathe, providing an open environment for the shimmering guitars and synths to fill the room. Percussion, both acoustic and synthetic, is given that classic 80’s compressed reverb sound. This isn’t a record with some elements of the genre, this is full-on synth rock. It should please fans of Simple Minds, who will appreciate the band doing somewhat of a return to a style that was largely dropped from their output over the past decade.
The most immediately recognizable aspect of the record is just how much joy there is. Each song just feels like the band was having a wonderful time laying down the tracks and that shines through. There’s a palpable energy that’s laced throughout Direction of the Heart which helps the record succeed despite sounding dated. At its core, it’s a synth-rock record with slightly more modern production. But when Simple Minds play these tracks, they are fresh. There’s a care put into the album that’s worth sticking around for over the 11 tracks.
The opener “Vision Thing” immediately sets the tone with its bright synths and pounding rhythms. It’s a song that, like the rest of the album, is a solid jam that’s prime for a big arena setting. Hearing a chorus once is all that’s needed to be singling along like it’s been heard dozens of times. It’s a feat to be able to craft a record where every chorus feels genuinely big and anthemic. Another great example of Simple Minds’ ability to nail a song is “Who Killed Truth?” with its rad acoustic intro that opens up into a synth-soaked rock hit. Kerr’s powerful vocal performance glides along the catchy melody exploding with personality. The track bursts with energy and each factor, from percussion to guitars, is locked in as one unified force.
“Planet Zero” is another highlight. This mysterious and captivating track has some excellent drums that provide momentum that drives the song forward. Kerr’s voice is low and alluring while Brown’s background vocals reach to the mountaintop with soaring, dramatic high notes. Every track has these moments where one or two elements really stand out among the high-standard kept by the rest of the band.
However, the album does wear thin on repeated listens. There will undoubtedly be several songs that stick; the ones that don’t just become wallpaper. Every song is definitely catchy, but that can only go so far. Despite all the great ideas on the record, it’s still mostly homogenous synth rock. Unlike their last outing, there isn’t much variety found on Direction of the Heart. This record is worth a listen because of its consistency, but it also suffers from that same quality.