Duran Duran’s last album was 2010’s Mark Ronson-produced All You Need Is Now, one of the band’s best ever records and one that garnered them much critical acclaim, many dubbing it a true return to form and their best album since Rio. And while it could have sold more, it did considerably well and performed much better than its predecessor, 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, which essentially flopped. They’d collaborated with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on Massacre, but even they couldn’t make it a commercial success. Personally, though, it’s one of my favorite Duran Duran albums. I think it was just ahead of its time because ’80’s-style pop music hadn’t started making a comeback yet, whereas it seems to be all the rage today with countless synth pop artists trying to capture the ’80’s new wave sound. (I recently reviewed the new Painted Palms album, which does this.) If it would’ve been released right now, I’m sure Massacre would’ve done much better than it did when it was released.
All You Need Is Now found the band working not just with Ronson but with songwriter Dominic Brown, who co-wrote most of the songs on the album with them. The album also featured a pair of guests, Ana Matronic of Scissor Sisters on “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)” and Kelis on “The Man Who Stole a Leopard.”
Once again, the band has some special guests on Paper Gods, Kiesza, Jonas Bjerre, Mr. Hudson, John Frusciante, Lindsay Lohan, Janelle Monáe and Nile Rodgers. To that end, you should see the formula here by now: with each of their three latest albums, the band has surrounded themselves with producers du jour and special guests that are sure to get people interested in the records. But, hey, most of the collaborations have been great and I’m a fan of all three records, so that’s just an observation, not a complaint. Besides, you can’t fault the band for wanting to be popular again and if having some timely cameos is going to help them with that goal then bring them on. Still, it’s not as though the band is using these artists to concoct bubble gum pop hits aimed at Top 40 radio. No, all three of their latest albums, including Paper Gods, are what I’d have to call art pop. It seems the band wants the popularity but they’re not willing to compromise their music very much to get there. For example, the first track released from the new album, which opens it, is the seven minute title track, “Paper Gods,” which features Mr. Hudson on backing vocals and co-production. You’d swear the snappy electro-thumper — about Hollywood idols being paper gods — was written by the band when they were making their very first album, as it bursts with the sort of raw creativity you tend to get from a band making their debut album, not their 14th. The surprising thing about “Paper Gods” is that it doesn’t feel like a seven minute song; the proggy pop number doesn’t feel a minute longer than four minutes. Perhaps that’s why they were brave enough to risk putting it out there before any of the other tracks on the record.
The second track on Paper Gods is the Kiesza collaboration, “Last Night In The City.” The song begins with Kiesza singing lead on part of the chorus, which caught me off guard. You usually expect the guest to sing after the band’s lead singer, but after you’ve listened to it a couple of times you get used to the opening and it doesn’t feel strange anymore. The bizarre thing is that the song sounds more like a boisterous club remix than an original song. It makes me wonder if there’s a normal version of it sitting around somewhere. In any case, if you like massive, EDM bangers then you’re going to be in heaven when you listen to this one, which the band wrote alone and co-produced with Mr. Hudson and Josh Blair. As I said, it took me a couple of listens to get used to this one, but I love it now. I just wish the beats weren’t quite so loud. You’d swear this was a Dave Aude remix.”You Kill Me With Silence” is another track written entirely by the band, who co-produced it with Mr. Hudson, and it’s one of the album’s finest tracks. “You kill me with silence / That’s your style, girl / You’re letting me know / This deafening silence / The only reason you’re in control,” sings Le Bon, his voice ripe with emotion. The beats here are plenty loud, but not to the point that it sounds like a remix. On the contrary, it just sounds like an immaculately-produced electro-pop diamond. I could see this one becoming a major radio hit. And it’s highly relatable, given that we’ve all been given the silent treatment at some point or another.
Janelle Monáe and Nile Rodgers feature on the hook-packed “Pressure Off,” which was written by the band with Ronson, Monáe and Rodgers; production was handled by Ronson, Rodgers, Mr. Hudson, Josh Blair and the band. “Step out into the future,” Le Bon sings, his voice as powerful as ever. As you could guess, this one has incredible production with lots of layers and details. Rodgers’ jangly electric guitar and John Taylor’s thick bass notes give the song its core identity, though the beats take the lead on the highly infectious chorus. As for Monáe’s contribution, she does wonderful vocals and harmonizes perfectly with Le Bon on the monstrous chorus. She also sings lead on a verse in the final third of the song in lieu of a guitar solo. It’s certainly one of the album’s most essential tracks.
The idea of Lindsay Lohan on a Duran Duran track will probably make you cringe, but she fits in perfectly in “Danceophobia,” where she delivers a subtle spoken word part that serves the song well. It’s located in the same place where one would normally have a guest rapper do his or her thing. The synthy-licious number is primed for the clubs and has hit written all over it.
Later, “Sunset Garage” is a sweet and funky tune with glimmering synth. I have to praise John Taylor’s bass playing here, which is loud and provides the song’s backbone. He’s always been a stellar player, but his playing on Paper Gods is possibly his best ever.
“Butterfly Girl” is one of three tracks on the album to feature former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, whose presence on a pop song like this would seem out of place, but, no, he actually fits in just fine. He even does some soloing and it gels with the song perfectly.
I should also mention another track Frusciante plays on, “The Universe Alone,” a Queen-esque, epic number which closes the album. It was written by the Duran guys alone, who produced the track with Josh Blair. Blair also contributed to the song’s elaborate strings arrangement, which Davide Rossi also worked on. “I’ll see you in some other lifetime,” Le Bon sings. “The Universe Alone.” The Duran guys have done plenty of experimental songs over the years, but this might be their best yet. It has so many parts, all fitting together beautifully, some killer, classic rock-style Frusciante soloing being one of them. The song concludes with a choir of women chanting and they sound rather ominous. But how else would you expect a song about the end of the world to end?
As much as I love Duran Duran’s last two albums, I must say that Paper Gods takes the cake. And what a wonderful, tasty cake it is. Whether you’re just checking out the band for the first time, or an old fan who hasn’t caught up with them in years, this is the perfect album for you to get acquainted with them with. Although it’s largely a very cohesive record, there are plenty of variations from song to song, no two of them sounding alike, so I think it’s safe to say that there’s something for everyone here. Come listen to one of the world’s greatest pop bands at the top of their game.