While Simply Red’s imperial phase really merited the epithet – their album Stars was the UK’s best seller for two consecutive years in 1991-92 – that gilded period in pop history drew to a close fully a quarter-century ago, and with it the notion of the brand as a band. Since then, founder and front face Mick Hucknall has continued to invoke his trade name as and when he’s felt like assembling session musicians to record or tour, merrily adding to his 50-odd million record sales and billion-plus YouTube stream totals along the way.
Such activities doubtless add spice to a life devoted variously to family, commercial property interests, winemaking (he has a Sicilian vineyard), supporting Manchester United, and latterly vociferous Twitter-based anti-Brexit activism, all of it a far cry from Hucknall’s origins in a broken and broke home in greater Manchester. As he approaches his 60th birthday, he says: “At this stage of my career, I could do one of those dark reflective albums looking back on my life and all that kind of stuff that people tend to do at a certain age. But I thought, sod that! I wanted to make something punchy. I want to have a good time.”
Accordingly, Simply Red’s 12th studio album Blue Eyed Soul, the outfit’s first in four years, dials up the positive vibes and smothers any notion of dark reflection, much less introspection. Amongst the 10 new Hucknall-penned songs here is Don’t Do Down, which features the defiant line: “Some people out there are trying to bring me down, but I won’t let ‘em, some people out there have really let me down, I don’t regret them, but I won’t forget them.” As if to underline his point, he shambles amiably into good time party mode with BadBootz, a trade-off of funky guitar, brassy parps and synth burbles underpinning lyrics that sound like a dance instructor’s class notes seemingly delivered – “get up!” – by the roused and randy ghost of James Brown. Hucknall, as ever, is delivering on his own terms.
Simply Red were initially and often disparagingly known as purveyors of ‘white reggae’ during the ‘80s. While working with Sly & Robbie and winning a MOBO suggests they weren’t entirely terrible at this, and Hucknall’s financial backing of the Blood and Fire dub reissues label underlines his genuine feeling for the music, his pop chops have long encompassed a rather wider range. This time the songs are rooted in vocals-led bluesy funk. Arrangements throughout are machine-tooled tight as ever, while Hucknall’s distinct voice has continued to develop; in amongst the plaintive notes are guttural roars and husky, throaty warbles, as evidenced on crackingly jaunty opener Thinking Of You.
There’s more of the same (with bells on) on Ring That Bell, a nothing of a song lyrically which nevertheless serves a dual purpose of letting Hucknall and his band get a funky groove on and reminding that he has co-written material with that late night televisual enthusiast of all things blues, Jools Holland. It’s of a piece with a vacuous take on being delayed by public transport, Riding On A Train, which is saved from abject mundanity only by the warm romantic pull of the journey’s destination: “I’ve been away so long, I gotta get home now, got my family waiting for me, my lovely simple life 1-2-3…”
Beyond the arena-destined mid-tempo MOR, devotees of emotive Simply Red ballads will find some semblance of succour with Sweet Child and Complete Love, the latter easy to imagine soundtracking a trite Richard Curtis movie montage of love and regret circa 1999. Album closer Tonight does similar things, hinting initially at a musical homage to Hucknall’s timeless Holding Back The Years while pointing firmly towards soul titan Isaac Hayes‘ territory.
Ultimately much of this is soppily inconsequential, for all the professionalism with which it is delivered. Yet this should come as no surprise: so much of Hucknall’s lyrical output is, and deliberately so – for soulful, romantic songs with ordinary themes, replete with funky basslines, have long been his stock in trade and have served him spectacularly well. Hucknall cares not for cool, for criticism or for innovation, and neither do his fans. The faithful will surely lap up Blue Eyed Soul.