Duran Duran Paper Gods (Warner Bros.)
There’s something quite exhilarating about hearing Duran Duran open their newest release with a mournful a capella refrain, then launching into a biting commentary on pop culture to a percolating dance beat – but then, Duran Duran seems to take delight in reinvention, especially since Simon LeBon’s vocals are the lynchpin that defines the group’s instantly recognizable sound. And while the opening salvo tends to throw a few too many sonic trappings in the mix, you can’t help but admire the acerbic lyrics: “Bow to the paper gods/Money for head shots/Who needs it?/The total human race became a basket case/It’s nothing to lose face about…..” Even the album art, which seems like a computer-generated collage of iconography from past records points toward the visually-arresting but disposable nature of art and commerce. Not bad for a group that was dismissed as “new romantic” by many 80’s music critics.
“Last Night In The City” follows, with pop vocalist Kiesza providing nice harmonies while LeBon proclaims “We’re gonna live this night like it’s our last night/’Cause nobody cares if there’s no tomorrow…” It’s a party anthem with a slightly subversive undertow, much like “Last Night On Earth”, which ended 2000’s underscored masterpiece Pop Trash. You could call Paper Gods the Pop Trash of its time: the glorious smorgasbord of classic and contemporary idioms, LeBon’s poppish delivery of caustic bon mots, the uncharacteristic sonic flourishes that surprise, then quickly dissolve into DJ-land. Yet, this album cannot help but be measured by the disc Pop Matters deemed “Best of 2011”, All You Need Is Now – where producer/DJ Mark Ronson gave the band’s music heft and gravitas, not to mention some killer hooks. Perhaps that’s what’s missing here: even though Ronson had a hand in this album, there’s a kitchen-sink approach on Paper Gods, and so not everything sticks to the proverbial wall.
One of the few exceptions is second-single release, “Pressure Off”, which marks the reunion of DD with guitarist/producer Nile Rodgers, last heard on 1986’s pivotal Notorious album. Rodgers joins singer Janelle Monáe with his choppy dancefloor riffs and keyboardist Nick Rhodes’ retro synth licks, illustrating the magic DD creates when they combine old and new with fist-pumping choruses and Chic-y harmonies. If only Paper Gods contained more moments like this, and less unsuccessful attempts like the embarrassing “Danceophobia” – where actress Lindsay Lohan has a spoken-word cameo, coming off as a low-rent Madonna (Madonna……….now there’s someone I’d love to see Duran Duran collaborate with!); or the haunting lyricism of “You Kill Me With Silence”, which would’ve benefited greatly from a string-laced orchestral backdrop (ala, “Ordinary World”), instead of the awkward Gary Numan meets Tears For Fears template that underlies it.
In fact, Rodgers’ appearance on “Pressure Off” only underscores the untapped potential that Paper Gods could’ve had – imagine if DD had consciously decided to update Notorious to the new millennium, with Rodgers’ handiwork pitted against Ronson’s guitar-heavy production and LeBon’s lyrics. Oh, what a pop manifesto that would’ve been, without seeming like a uninspired retread of All You Need Is Now. Stepping out into the future is all well and good, but what Duran Duran’s music reminds us (by way of all the trademark artifacts that have influenced so much of contemporary radio) is that everything old is new again.