“We are Duran Duran and we were designed to make you party” said Duran Duran’s charismatic lead singer Simon Lebon as the band took their final bow on the stage at their concert in Port Chester (New York) on August 1. It was their first concert as part of the tour accompanying the release of their new album “Paper Gods” (scheduled for release on September 11, 2015). The “rock music for the dancefloor” manifesto lies at the heart of their becoming a band at the end of the punk era. Over 30 years into their illustrious career, the band’s members (now in their mid-50s) still want to make you party and have spent the last few years toiling away in the recording studio to create the latest soundtrack to that party. To that end, they are reasonably successful on “Paper Gods“. But is “Paper Gods” the career-defining album that the band and their legions of fans worldwide hope it will be? Not in the conventional sense of the term “career-defining”.
Before I delve into the details of the album, it is worth mentioning that in this world in which quite a few bands from the New Wave era are returning with new material, Duran Duran sets themselves apart through their sky-high aspirations. These aspirations force them to shelve a winning formula and innovate from scratch. They are not trying to work within the confines of what they are comfortable with. Their contemporaries, on the other hand, stay within the realms of comfort that they have thrived in both artistically and commercially. Duran Duran absolutely does not believe in playing it safe. This has the unfortunate consequence of them occasionally not being able to capitalize on momentum that they generated through a hit predecessor album because they did not believe in repeating the formula of that hit album on a subsequent musical offering. This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a curse in that it more often than not, leads to a “trough” in a commercial trajectory that has been almost sinusoidal for the last two and a half decades. A noteworthy example of this pattern is the 1990 album “Liberty“. To the music buying masses, “Liberty” was nothing more than a footnote in an ending era of glory for the New Wave gods – despite its moments of shimmering brilliance which manifested itself in the form of songs such as the criminally under-rated “Serious” and “My Antarctica“. But as the band’s keyboard player Nick Rhodes suggested in an interview with Larry King on CNN, “Liberty” became a necessary stepping stone to “The Wedding Album” (1993) – the album that was responsible for Duran Duran rising like a phoenix from the ashes and the foundation of the comeback against all odds. It broke Duran Duran to a new generation and extricated them from their commercially stifling “80s” label. The second example of this pattern is with “Red Carpet Massacre“. The band was riding high on the success of their first outing (i.e. the “Astronaut” album) with its original five members in almost two decades. At the time, they could work with any producer of their choice. They chose to go with Timbaland – a seasoned R&B producer that had never worked with a band before. One can only surmise that Timbaland probably struggled to understand the band dynamic of Duran Duran and its critical role in the creation of a substantial album. It showed in the final treatment of songs that were actually very strong at their core. “Red Carpet Massacre” failed to impress but it provided a key lesson learned – one that undoubtedly translated to the recording sessions that yielded the brilliant “All you need is now” – an album that resulted from a “clear brief from Mark (Ronson)” (as Simon Lebon expressed in an interview with Fresh 102.7) to “reclaim the 80s for Duran Duran”. Lebon further emphasizes in the same interview that “you do that once but can’t go in and make a second album like that”.
“Pressure Off“, the lead single from “Paper Gods” is arguably one of the best pop singles of 2015 and just might be the greatest radio-fodder Duran Duran has created since songs like “Ordinary World” and “Come Undone” from the “Wedding Album“. It is the sonic sequel to the band’s hit single “Notorious” – a song in which producer Nile Rodgers found a way to make the band flaunt their inner funk – probably for the first time ever. With a sing-along chorus that sticks, and a Middle 8 (performed predominantly by Janelle Monae) that leaves the listener begging for more, “Pressure Off” does not by any stretch suggest that Duran Duran is on the verge of an artistic or commercial “trough”. Unfortunately, after one listen of the album, it becomes fairly obvious that “Pressure Off” is somewhat of a red herring – but only from the perspective of there being an obvious dearth of potential subsequent singles from “Paper Gods“.
While the album brims with a host of high-profile collaborations, only two of them yield songs with delectable and memorable melodic hooks. The first being “Pressure Off“. The second being “What are the chances” – one of the very few down-tempo moments on the album. The wailing electric guitar of Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ John Frusciante is neatly deployed for maximal impact and makes a perfect complement to Simon Lebon’s heart-wrenching vocals. Lebon continues to demonstrate his prowess as a lyricist as indicated by the song’s second verse:
Playing with your life or is it destiny
Which sets you on a path?
Is it out of choice that you’re here next to me
Or just the aftermath
Of moments as they pass
While the song might not be as instant as hits such as “Come Undone” or “Save a Prayer“, it has the capacity to grow very quickly and entrench itself in the hearts of listeners in the way that lesser-known Duran Duran gems such as “A Matter of feeling” and “My Antarctica” did. Needless to say, it is the album’s obvious “second single” if there is to be a follow-up to “Pressure Off“. It is bound to be a crowd-pleaser at the next Duran Duran gig. More importantly, it would be great to see Duran Duran explore this creative partnership with John Frusciante on future offerings.
Lindsay Lohan’s appearance on “Danceophobia” adds virtually nothing to the song. Jonas Bjerre (from the Danish rock band Mew) seems almost under-utilized on “Change the skyline“. Canadian pop starlet Kiesza proves that she has the vocal chops to share the spotlight with lead singer Simon Lebon but her ability seems to be lost on a rather generic electronic dance pop track titled “Last night in the city“.
With the exception of the pleasant and catchy “Sunset Garage” (a song that flits between being modern and somewhat 60s-influenced), the rest of the album suffers from meandering melodies that seem to go nowhere. This issue is most prominent on the album’s title track. Meanwhile, “Change the skyline“feels like two different tracks stitched together.
For all the criticism that I have heaped on “Paper Gods“, it does have its merits. The production is fresh and vibrant and Simon Lebon’s vocals showcase a youthful exuberance through the entire length of the album. The songs might serve as a potent elixir to create an uptempo mood for a party. That being said, while the mood is more than likely to be memorable, most of the songs will not share that good fortune. There are elements of glittering promise scattered throughout but somehow they never come together on a majority of “Paper Gods“. What they do indicate is that band is on a journey in the right direction – a direction of modernity. In fact, no one can accuse the band of sounding dated. It would be great to see the band build on some of these promising moments and give fans and skeptics another goosebump-inducing Duran Duran album. “Paper Gods” demonstrates immense potential if not an all-out victory for the band. It is far from the pitfalls that albums like “Red Carpet Massacre” or “Thank You” were. But it is not a musical milestone of the type that “Rio“, “All you need is now“, and “The Wedding Album” are. I get the feeling a conscious decision was made for it to be none of these. If stepping stones are considered “career-defining” then indeed “Paper Gods” is career-defining as it is a forerunner to likely greatness in the next few years of the Duran Duran story.
STAR RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars
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