In one of the earlier scenes of the 2016 Irish Indie flick “Sing Street”, the protagonist’s brother Brendan Lawlor (played by Jack Reynor) says the following while watching the music video for “Rio” by Duran Duran with his family in the living room – ‘The jury is still out on which way these guys will go but they are a lot of fun. John Taylor is one of the most proficient bass players in the UK”. This very well could have been a living room conversation (at least in the western world) in the 80s. It looks like the jury has weighed in and what we have is a band whose legacy has stood the test of time. More importantly, this is a band far less intent on resting on the laurels of their 80s and 90s glory as one of the key posterchildren of the New Wave movement. They had fans all over the world enthralled and eating out of the palms of their hands. It is staggering to think that it has been a little over 40 years since Duran Duran rose to prominence with the release of their eponymous debut album. In these last four decades, despite multiple career setbacks and changes in their band formation, they have continued with a dogged perseverance compounded by an unwavering tenacity and a relentless propensity towards reinvention. They considered creative setbacks as being catalysts for their artistic highs as opposed to being chapters of their career that they needed to consciously distance themselves from. Today, four of the five original members are kicking off their fifth decade as a creative entity with as much style and swagger as they did when they first took the world by storm – with their 15th album “Future Past” – and their first in six years since their US top 10 album “Paper Gods”.
The title of the album has a multi-layered significance. In the lyrics of the album’s downtempo title track, lead singer Simon Lebon sings about the present being a “Future Past”. The album title is also quite apt since it is a nod to the band’s embrace of their musical heritage enveloped in a forward looking sound whose primary sonic architect is post-house techno DJ Erol Alkan. While Erol is known more as a DJ, he has done work with The Killers. He is undoubtedly an unconventional choice for a band that could have picked any producer for an album that has coincided with their chronological milestone as a band. This is quite on-brand for Duran Duran and mildly reminiscent of their opting to work with hit producer Timbaland (he had never worked with a band prior to his work with Duran Duran) for their 2007 album “Red Carpet Massacre”. The goodwill they have generated over the years is obvious by the presence of high-profile collaborators on this album which include Mark Ronson (producer of their “All you need is now” album), the legendary Giorgio Moroder (the Italian record producer often referred to as the “Father of Disco”), Graham Coxon (from the Britpop act Blur), Swedish starlet Tove Lo, and the highly acclaimed Mike Garson (also known for his work with David Bowie).
Instead of teasing fans with one or two singles in advance of the album’s release, Duran Duran chose to release five songs from the album in advance (with the most recent being “Give it all up” featuring Tove Lo). On the album’s downtempo lead single “Invisible”, the band indulges their fondness for dissonance and discord (something that was in full display on the verses of the lead single and title track of their album “All you need is now”) while showcasing lead singer Simon Lebon’s thought-provoking lyricism. The song’s chorus feels in tune with the experience of those that felt unheard in a year defined by different layers of turmoil that includes the global pandemic and civil rights protests. That being said, its melody feels rather pedestrian and the rhythmic syncopation in its chorus rather jarring. Sadly, it does not whet the appetite for the album in the way that their 2015 single “Pressure Off” (hands down one of the best singles of their career) did for the album “Paper Gods”. It is a pity since the beauty of the lyrics is essentially lost in a sound that is likely to feel quite inaccessible to the casual fan or skeptic. Fortunately, this song is NOT representative of the predominant sound on the album.
The following three uptempo singles benefit from hook-laden verses followed by choruses that do not feel like worthy successors to their verses. The prominent use of vocables such as “na na na na” on “Tonight United” and “tu-du-tu-tu-doo-doo” on “Anniversary” feel a little lazy but do not detract from the songs one bit. That being said, the songs exude the carefree dance-ability of their early hits in the 80s while sounding modern and are likely to grow on listeners quickly while being crowd pleasers (especially the sing-out-loud chorus of “Tonight United”) at future concerts. In fact, “Anniversary“, a song lead singer Simon Lebon describes as a celebration of ANY relationship (including a business relationship) would have been the appropriate lead single for the album. The strongest of the pre-release singles is the album’s first true highlight. “Give it all up” (featuring Tove Lo). For the casual fan listening to this album from start to finish, this song (Track #3) is also likely to be the starting point for his or her appreciation of the album. On this mid-tempo, intricately layered, dark, moody, and yet exhilarating song, Simon Lebon and Tove Lo sing about the imminent end of a relationship and what is likely to follow. The song’s underlying theme is most prominent on the lyrics of song’s Middle 8:
And the sun beats down on skin and ground and anything between
And the moon looks down on broken vows
Fills the space between us with that cold blue shine
and I can’t remember how our love felt at the start
no I can’t remember
It benefits from sonic embellishments such as the delicate sprinkles of Rio-esque keyboard segments (especially between the second chorus and the Middle 8) and cinematic orchestration that grows in prominence during the course of the song. The complementarity of Tove Lo’s vocals alongside those of lead singer Simon Lebon is absolutely stunning – and hopefully this is the first of at least a few more collaborations between the two.
On the Mark Ronson produced “Wing“, Duran Duran showcases one of the finest moments on the album. It features prominent guitar sections from both Blur’s Graham Coxon and producer Mark Ronson. This down-tempo gem is sonically reminiscent of “Mediterranea” from the “All you need is now” album. Lead singer Simon Lebon’s gift as a lyricist shines as he paints a vivid picture of a tormented protagonist looking to escape his reality on a “wing of innocence” – especially via the following lyric:
I’ll never show the knife that’s deep inside
How with its twist the more it cuts away at pride
Like a rabid dog at communion
That we could not hide away
The family’s secret bloodstained history
One can easily envision this song being featured in a movie (or television show) soundtrack. Like with “Give it all up”, “Wing” benefits from a quality that makes it an apt sonic backdrop to a powerful visual scene in the way that the band’s hit single “Save a prayer” was for a scene between lead characters Otis (played by Asa Butterfield) and Ruby (played by Mimi Keene) in Season 3 of Netflix’s “Sex Education“.
“Hammerhead” (featuring internet personality Ivorian Doll) brims with the swagger Duran Duran has displayed from the very beginning (although the rap section from Ivorian Doll does not add much) while “Falling” makes for a worthy closer as Simon Lebon’s vocals drift gently in a delicate soundscape constructed by pianist Mike Garson in the final minute of the song.
“Future Past” is an album by a band that has not lost its youthful spunk. No one would guess that it is the work of guys in their late 50s/early 60s. Each band member’s personality shines through in the album. Noteworthy examples include John Taylor’s recognizable bass solo on “Tonight United” and Nick Rhodes’ Rio-esque keyboard embellishments on “Give it all up”. In our review from 2015 titled “Duran Duran’s Paper Gods is a likely forerunner to greatness“, I surmised that while the album “Paper Gods” had its moments, it did not deliver a punch in the way that its predecessor “All you need is now” did . That being said, given Duran Duran’s ups and down it was likely to be a precursor to a high for the band. We had to wait six years to find out if that assertion was true. While “Future Past” does not benefit from an uptempo single in the league of “Pressure Off” (from “Paper Gods”), it is a far superior album and a step forward for the band. Simon Lebon’s voice continues to age better than a bottle of wine and the band displays a musical vitality not typically associated with men their age. “Future Past” ushers in the fifth decade of a band whose creative well does not seem to be drying anytime soon and fans are undoubtedly better off for it.
STAR RATING: 4 out of 5 stars
Here is a full-length music video for “Anniversary”:
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