It must be hard for Duran Duran sometimes. They’ve been going for almost 35 years and are just about to release their 14th album, but they’re almost always referred to as a great singles band. The one exception to that is their 1982 masterpiece, Rio. Although they’ve had so many successes in other ways (awards, sell out tours and various commercial comebacks), I can’t help thinking they’d like to be known as a great albums act too.
In 2011, All You Need Is Now, produced by Mark Ronson,was their most consistent album since the very underrated 1986 release, Notorious. Working with Ronson turned out to be a great fit. He openly admitted to coaxing them into recording the album that, stylistically speaking, should have followed Rio. Recreating that sound worked out well because the songs were strong enough, especially ‘Runway Runaway’ and ‘The Man Who Stole a Leopard’, which were as good as their peak era. The warm reaction that record got has obviously given them a boost in confidence, and on Paper Gods they’ve continued its good work.
Lead single ‘Pressure Off’ should be their biggest radio hit since ‘Ordinary World’. It has production, once again, from Ronson, guitar by Nile Rodgers (whose profile has been raised since his work with Daft Punk) and vocals by the amazing Janelle Monae. It’s funky, catchy and the “Oh oh oh oh oh oh” hook is pure earworm. Despite the list of collaborators, ‘Pressure Off’ doesn’t sound overcooked. It makes sense as the first single and is a very good song, but it’s not the best one here.
The title track is one of the most ambitious songs Duran Duran have done. It starts as a ballad but slowly builds into a brooding electro song — reminiscent of Hot Chip before taking a prog-like turn. The chorus, “Bow to the paper gods, in a world that is paper thin” is about how throwaway our culture has become. It makes a surprising and brilliant opener, their best since ‘The Reflex’ opened Seven & The Ragged Tiger 32 years ago.
‘Sunset Garage’ is the best song Duran Duran have released in years. In the chorus, Simon is in upbeat mode singing, “We’re gonna make it on our own”. He also sings, “Whatever happens, we’re okay, hey, we’re still alive”, which could be a mantra for Duran Duran as a group. It’s an effortless pop song like the ones that fill Duran Duran’s back catalogue. The sparkling synths in the solo are the musical highlight of Paper Gods.
‘What Are The Chances?’ is a very traditional sounding ballad (with a beautiful chorus) that sounds strikingly similar to Erasure. Paper Gods’ most over-the-top moment comes with the big cliched rock guitar solo. It’s a brilliant moment that then leads to Simon providing his best vocal of the album. The last track, ‘The Universe Alone’ is dark and up there with the best ballads they’ve done.
This wouldn’t be a Duran Duran album without some of Simon’s trademark ridiculous lyrics. On ‘Face For Today’ he sings, “The whole world is a mix spot on a plastic spoon” and “Time flies like a dancing man on crystal glow”. In ‘Only In Dreams’, “There’s a vampire in the limousine, the sun’s going down like a symphony”. Danceophobia is one of the strongest songs on the record, sounding like something that would fit on Madonna’s Confessions On A Dancefloor or Kylie’s Aphrodite. It has a daft but addictive chorus, “I know what it is coming over you, you don’t dance, danceophobia”. Lyrics like these give Duran Duran part of their charm.
On Paper Gods, Duran Duran mostly strike a good balance of not trying too hard to stay hip whilst staying true to their own style, but occasionally it doesn’t work. ‘Last Night In The City’ is a duet with Kiesza that sounds like Simon struggling to keep up with her overblown vocal. ‘Butterfly Girl’ tries hard to be funky, but falls flat and feels like filler.
All You Need Is Now was a very good, but safe record. It felt like an apology after the failed experimentation of 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre. Paper Gods is even better than All You Need Is Now since it throws in a few more surprises. These latest two records indicate Duran Duran have finally found where they fit in modern music. They’re not satisfied to rely on playing the greatest hits circuit — they want to stay relevant whilst acknowledging their past. If they can keep going in this direction maybe people will talk about more than just Rio when it comes to their albums.