After wandering in a pop tundra for over a decade, Duran Duran’s new album, Paper Gods, rightly restores their place as the ultimate ‘80s new-wave survivors.
Duran Duran were the One Direction of their day: five attractive lads from England who sang cute pop tunes for girls to go crazy over. Unlike other boy bands, they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments — two facts that are largely overlooked — and made epic, exotic music videos that legitimized MTV as a channel while simultaneously launching the band into the stratosphere. With quintessential anthems like “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio” under their belt, Duran Duran were one of the biggest bands in the world in the early ‘80s.
However, the band always buckled following their most notable successes: At the height of their fame, in 1985, they fractured into two separate bands, Arcadia and the Power Station. When they regrouped for 1986’s Notorious album, they lost two members, further stunting their progress. The band had a bit of a comeback when the haunting “Ordinary World” became a global hit in 1993, but they followed it up with a covers album, Thank You, that Q Magazine dismissed as the worst album of all time.
And when the band finally united all five original members for 2004’s Astronaut album, they crashed and burned with the Timbaland and Justin Timberlake-assisted follow-up a few years later.
Thankfully, Mark Ronson — the producer with the Midas touch — got the band back to their roots on 2011’s All You Need is Now. It was not a huge commercial success, but it acted as a sort of spiritual sequel to their acclaimed Rio album, and it put the wind back in the Duran Duran sails.
Naturally, new album, Paper Gods, could’ve been another stumbling block for the band. But instead, it does what Duran Duran have failed to do in the past: It builds upon their previous success.
Strangely, Paper Gods starts off solemnly: the opening, seven-minute title track is a cynical observation about the artificiality of modern life. The dirge-like chorus only adds to the lugubrious vibe. It’s a brilliant song, but where are the upbeat, energetic bursts of pop euphoria that made the band so famous in the ‘80s?
Luckily, “Paper Gods” acts as a red herring. The next song, “Last Night in the City” opens with guest-vocalist, Kiesza wailing “I’m not gonna sleep tonight.” That acts as a much better mission statement for this album: Duran Duran are still making music for people to dance to. In that vein, the best upbeat song on the album is “Butterfly Girl.” A funky, dance-pop number, it perfectly updates the classic Duran Duran sound for the digital age. “Pressure Off” and “Danceophobia” keep the good vibes going. Even mid-tempo songs like “You Kill Me With Silence” and “Face For Today” ooze with a slinky sexuality that still makes them fun. This is a proper party album.
But of course, Duran Duran also know their way around a ballad; “What Are the Chances?” carries the torch here. The song is the best example of what this album does so well: it sounds familiar (it’s a fascinating blend of their “Ordinary World,” “What Happens Tomorrow,” and “Falling Down”) while still sounding fresh and new.
The song is slightly at odds with the rest of the feel-good floor-fillers, but it sparkles like a diamond. This is clearly a band who know how to look backwards in order to move forward.
Also assisting in the band’s forward momentum are a slew of featured guests. A whole generation grew up with Duran Duran’s music, affording the band the luxury of picking the best talent to work with. Accordingly, everybody brings something to the table, whether it’s John Frusciante’s guitar, Janelle Monáe’s vocals, or Mr. Hudson’s production duties. Furthermore, the band expertly utilizes the added help while never relinquishing the spotlight; subsequently, the songs become more than the sum of their parts. The only real miss is Lindsay Lohan’s sexy-doctor spoken-word bit on the otherwise great “Danceophobia.” Lohan’s presence on the bouncy, fun track is both anonymous and superfluous; the band must have owed her a favor.
Surprisingly, for a band that relied so heavily on MTV, this comeback has not been assisted with official music videos. The album cover is a clever nod to some of the iconic imagery from their three-decade-plus career, but the lack of promotion via music video is a strange omission.
Despite no music videos, Paper Gods is already a hit: it just became their first US top 10 album in over twenty years. As this builds upon the step-in-the-right-direction that was their last album, the band have finally managed to continue their upward mobility. None of the songs on Paper Gods are going to be huge pop hits, but Duran Duran are too far in their career to worry about winning new fans, anyway. Instead, the album rewards the faithful with an intoxicating blend of the familiar and the new. It might have taken the band awhile to find their groove again, but Duran Duran are back!
(Featured Image via Jason Pursse.)