Mick Hucknall has his own record label these days, but despite another line-up shuffle, new album Home confirms that little else in the tried-and-tested – and phenomenally successful – Simply Red formula has changed. It’s a formula that is either loved or hated, a pop-tinged soul-ballad mix that has been slated by critics but which has propelled the band’s many singles into the higher echelons of the charts since the mid-1980s and sold millions of albums.
But since the seminal Stars album, Simply Red has essentially been the famously ginger-haired Mancunian’s vehicle. Alone and unchecked with his interpretations of both other people’s ballads and his own creations, Hucknall’s recent material shows signs of lacking the immediacy of his early hits.
The title track opens Home in low-key style, 40-year-old Hucknall’s distinctive voice sounding demure and laid-back as a whimsical piano phrase meanders about. “Home is a place where I yearn to belong,” croons the man with homes in Milan and Paris. It’s is not as strong as older material like Stars, but it still sounds like a master class in pop music making. The crisp production and simple arrangements make the album seem shorter than its 11 track length, and make it perfect background music for coffee houses.
Yet it does benefit from a philosophy of not fixing that which isn’t broken. Indeed it only really comes unglued on a cover of The Stylistics‘ You Make Me Feel Brand New, in the chorus of which Hucknall’s voice sounds stretched to strangulation. As if to underline his view that cover versions are cool, Hucknall indulges in a second – Bob Dylan’s Positively 4th Street.
Elsewhere, up-tempo numbers like Fake are targeted squarely at a drive time radio. Brass, strings, piano, guitar, vocals and keyboards combine to form a rounded texture. The single Sunrise, with its diva backing vocals, catchy bass, strings layers and twinkly keyboards, confirms that Simply Red can be understated when they like. And there’s a stab at variety with Money In My Pocket (Plan B Mix) which comes across as a wishful though scarcely successful attempt at dance-lite.
No great new direction then, and not the best work Simply Red has ever recorded, but Home suggests business as usual, and confirms that Hucknall has carved his own individual place in the landscape of pop music.