Duran Duran has been around for a holy crappin’ 37 years. Is that possible? How old am I? Never mind that question. The amazing thing is they’ve never been out of the public eye in all that time. Well, there was one album, Medazzaland, that just sort of fizzled, but we’ll just give that time period a miss, shall we?
It’s possible that the band is on the verge of their third career resurgence with the release of Paper Gods, a schizophrenic dance album for those with bad backs and broken hearts.
Lead-off single “Pressure Off” is indicative of half the album, mixing modern EDM sounds with a chunky R&B guitar groove. The presence of producer Nile Rodgers is most easily recognized on this track, which registers a solid eleven on the Funk-O-Meter. It feels like an updated version of an old Chic single from the late Seventies, causing an immediate activation of the “I Must Dance” section of the brain. That’s a scientific term. Look it up.
If that’s not enough dancing for you, check out the bass heavy track, “Danceophobia,” whose lyrics dare the listener to crank it up and shake whatever thing you choose to shake out on the floor. With an unexpected and sensually husky spoken word breakdown by Lindsay Lohan, “Danceophobia” is a fun bit of remix fodder.
If dancing is firmly not on your list of options, that’s OK. The other half of the album is filled with dark, brooding melancholy. Ballads like “What Are the Chances?” play to singer Simon Le Bon’s strengths. That wail of his is still chilling after all these years. He’s not lost a step since “Save a Prayer” and there’s no Autotune within hearing distance. It’s an amazing performance.
The standout track on the album may be “You Kill Me with Silence,” a vaguely Middle Eastern-tinged song, filled with interesting lyrical references (“You’ll make another lad insane”). There’s a sparse musical arrangement in place here; in keeping with the title, there’s a lot of emotion conveyed by the spaces in between, where the nothing lives. It’s a remarkable bit of restraint and it works on every level.
The dual personality of Paper Gods, whether intentional or not, works to grab old fans, who will be happy to hear the chunky Rio-like riffs, while new listeners may be enticed by guest spots by Janelle Monáe and Kiesza. It’s almost easier to go ahead and divide the album into halves.
The dance/pop half of Paper Gods is full of anthems about stepping into the future. That part of the album feels like the organic sequel to their album Astronaut, which spawned the single “(Reach Up For the) Sunrise,” which was one of the happiest songs of 2004.
The other half, the one where all the sadness lives, is also the bravest part. That part of Paper Gods feels like the second Arcadia album longtime fans never got. There’s a heavy, palpable Nick Rhodes/Simon Le Bon dynamic on those songs that borders on art-rock from the Eighties, but doesn’t dwell on nostalgia or cheap musical cues to the past.
Duran Duran has always looked forward. They’ve kept up with the times without trying to act like pop music’s “cool dads.” They’re above pandering and not afraid to grow. No matter which half of Paper Gods you’re drawn to, you’ll be treated to some of the finest lyrics Le Bon has ever written. He’s been known to fill some songs with pure gibberish (hello, “New Moon on Monday”). There’s no nonsense here, with the arguable exception of “Danceophobia.”
All in all, Paper Gods is an enjoyable album with plenty of replay value. More importantly, it’s a solid entry in the Duran Duran catalog, which has very few misfires. It’s no Seven and the Ragged Tiger, but it’s no Pop Trash, either.
Anything else would be, well, a-ha.
Paper Gods was released by Warner Bros. on September 11.