The pre-release rollout of Paper Gods, Duran Duran’s fourteenth studio album, was brilliantly executed. The first teaser was the announcement that Mark Ronson and Nile Rodgers, each riding impossibly high thanks to their respective work on “Uptown Funk” and “Get Lucky,” two of the biggest pop songs of the decade (and in all likelihood, two of the biggest pop songs of all time), would return to produce. (Ronson produced the band’s previous album, 2010’s All You Need Is Now, which earned the band their best reviews in over 25 years. Rodgers, meanwhile, produced their 1986 album Notorious.) Soon after that, the band announced that they’ve signed with Warner Bros. Records, who have racked up some impressive signings of late (Johnny Marr, Paul Weller, Richard Hawley). The WB PR machine elevated the band’s social media presence to the point of omnipresence. Duran Duran has momentum, and they smell blood in the water.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is the exact position they found themselves after their 2004 Fab Five reunion album Astronaut, which earned the band its first UK Top Five single since “Ordinary World.” The original plan for the follow-up to Astronaut was to make an indie rock album, a political record with a fair amount of angst. The label, however, didn’t hear a first single – though they allegedly heard a second and a third single – and asked if maybe the band would consider working with someone more commercial. Ultimately, that meant Timbaland, which expedited Andy Taylor’s (apparently long-coming) second departure from the band, and led to the band scrapping the entire album in favor of a hip-hop makeover. The result: 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, which is arguably the biggest misstep in the band’s career. The scrapped indie-rock album Reportage, tragically, remains unreleased.
They certainly wouldn’t do that again, would they? Make an album that is vintage Duran Duran songwriting with modern-day production, get a lot of people’s attention, and then follow it with a blatant attempt to rope in the kids?
Yes. Yes, they would.
Why the pathological need for the adulation of all the teeny boppers? That ‘older artists still notching hits’ ship sailed 16 years ago (last person on board: Carlos Santana), making it highly unlikely that a single American Top 40 station working today is going to play anything from this album, regardless of how good the song is. Bands used to be able to sneak a song onto the radio by not labeling the 45s they sent to radio stations. In fact, Duran Duran is one of the bands who successfully executed that trick (again, “Ordinary World”), but that ship sailed years before Santana’s did. On the surface, Duran Duran has far more to lose than they have to gain by taking this gamble a second time.
Luckily for them, they appear to have learned something from the previous experiment, because Paper Gods is much, much better than Red Carpet Massacre, for two reasons: they came up with a batch of songs that marry the band’s sensibilities with modern-day songwriting and arrangement trends (God, that reads cynical), and the production –mainly handled not by Ronson or Rodgers, but rather Mr. Hudson and Josh Blair, which is one cold-ass bait-and-switch – fits the band’s songwriting style better than the work of the hacktastic Danja Hills ever did…mostly. There are some missteps, though. Let’s get to those first, and never speak of them again.
There are two truly duff tracks on the album, and for God knows what reason, they leaked one of them before the album’s release, giving it a chance to scare people off. “You Kill Me with Silence” has a decent chorus, but the production is terrible, filled with the brittle keyboards and drum samples that undid the handful of passable Red Carpet Massacre tracks. “Danceophobia,” meanwhile, is this album’s “Bedroom Toys” (which is to say, one of the band’s worst songs, ever), and the song’s guest performer is none other than Lindsay Lohan. It would have been nice if her presence gave the song some irony, but no.
The first single is the Ronson-produced “Pressure Off,” anchored by Rodgers’ trademark scratch guitar. It’s the Chic-iest thing the band has ever done, and yes, that includes “Notorious.” At the same time, it’s clearly second-tier material in terms of where it will ultimately stand in the band’s canon, and yet there is something undeniable about it, the rare Duran song that wins people over because it’s a bit of an underdog. Maybe it’s the subconscious knowledge that “Pressure Off” won’t be driven down the world’s throat, like all of the band’s biggest hits were, actually makes it more likeable. All I know is that my 6-year-old daughter immediately latched onto that ‘Oh oh oh oh oh oh, oh oh oh oh’ bit in the chorus, so I wouldn’t turn my back on this one just yet.
The album’s biggest surprise is “Last Night in the City.” Nothing about this track should work for Duran Duran – big EDM build-up, by-the-numbers arrangement, cynical cash grab to get the teen vote, John Taylor’s mad bass skills all but invisible, something that happens throughout the album –and yet it works remarkably well. Simon Le Bon sings the song as if his life depends on it. In fact, he does this throughout the record, opting for the tip top of his range far more often than not. (Simon ran into vocal troubles while touring the last album, so one could argue that this is his declaration that his voice is just fine, thank you.) “Face for Today,” though, is be the best combination of old and new, because it blends the major and minor chords like few Duran tunes have ever done, and the production doesn’t totally fuck everything up. I wonder if they will use that as a pull quote for the next press release. “The production doesn’t totally fuck everything up,” says David Medsker of Popdose.
The album’s other two high watermark moments are its first and last songs. Much of Duran’s best work comes when they play with the ‘sad keys’ (“The Chauffeur,” “The Man Who Stole a Leopard,” “Midnight Sun,” the list goes on and on), and album opener “Paper Gods,” along with closer “The Universe Alone,” milk this for everything they’ve got. The latter uses an “I’m Coming Out”-type rhythm track to brilliant effect, only to send a sonic boulder towards a group of singing monks in the finale, while the former might be the shortest seven-minute song ever written, it is that catchy and that effortless. Both of these songs will be fan favorites for years to come.
Duran Duran has gotten the shit kicked out of them for decades for being an image-first band, but they have always taken their music seriously, knowing that the music is what will ultimately carry them. Paper Gods is a far better album than anyone should have the right to expect from Duran Duran in 2015. It would be nice, though, to see them stop chasing trends in the future; it’s as if they have forgotten that when they first hit the scene, everyone else wanted to sound like them, not the other way around.