Paper Gods Primer: A Track-By-Track Guide to Duran Duran's New Album
By Lori Majewski
What do we expect from our pop idols? We expect them to give us back our youth and to make us feel like we’re still filled with the kind of hope and excitement we felt when we first became fans.
Duran Duran had these things handled at the three shows I saw in the past month: August 1st and 2nd in Portchester, NY, and the 5th at Nile Rodgers’ FOLD Festival on the North Fork of Long Island. These guys have been at it for 37 years now — they know what their audience wants and exactly how to give it to them. Between hearing so many songs that comprise the soundtrack of your life and seeing so many of the friends you’ve made over the course of it, going to a Duran show can be like attending your high school reunion. Everyone goes home with a buzz, having taken a hit of that oh so powerful drug: nostalgia.
But Duran accomplished something else at those gigs. When they played “Pressure Off,” the first single from their forthcoming, fourteenth studio album, Paper Gods, they kept the audience in rapt attention. You know how it usually is when an iconic group plays new material: “Time to head for the bar…” Not on these nights, though, and not with this song. Duran had so much fun rocking out that the fans fed off of them and sang along: Oh oh oh oh oh oh/Oh oh oh oh… And just like that, the band and their fans turned away from the past and stepped out into the future.
It’s rare that “Duran Duran: Crowd-Pleasing Live Act” rubs elbows with “Duran Duran: Experimental Studio Musicians.” If they decided to embark on a career as only the former and quit being the latter, they'd still make a handsome living. Just come out and play the hits with the old videos on a screen and everyone would go home happy. Most of the bands who’ve survived this long (or who’ve broken up and reunited) do exactly this.
But Duran Duran is not most bands. Simon always says his group was "designed to make you party,” but that's only half the story. For them, the writing and recording of new music is a non-negotiable part of their job description. And even though they’re their own bosses, they never make it easy on themselves.
“They avoid comfort zones,” Ben (“Mr”) Hudson recently told me, and he should know, having spent more than a year in a South London studio toiling away on Paper Gods. More than a year! Of course, this is nothing new. Duran are notorious for making us wait ages for a new album. They are perfectionists. Also, there’s so much more to it than just the endgame of putting out a new record. As John Taylor likes to say, “Trust the process.” These days, they don’t make records for a record company. They don’t make records for their fans, either. They make records to challenge themselves. And each time they embark on such a voyage, they learn more about themselves and each other, and about Duran Duran the brand — both what it is and what it isn’t.
With Paper Gods, Duran proves that there isn’t a whole lot that they aren’t, musically, anyway. The album isn’t overly long — there are 12 tracks — but it has pretty much everything you could ever want. Emotional ballad? Check. Dance numbers? It’s got lots of those. A tight rhythm section that made you remember why you fell in love with the band in the first place? But, of course! That’s only the beginning, though. Paper Gods is such a rich, overstuffed box of assorted chocolates that you’ll still be hearing new bits a month after your first listen.
When JT asked me to write a Paper Gods primer — a track-by-track assessment of the new record — I bristled. I've always agreed with Frank Zappa: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Also, I’m not a critic; I’m a fan who writes about music and interviews artists. However, as a lifelong fan of Duran Duran, I probably have a lot in common with you, dear DD.com reader, which is why I accepted his invite to share my thoughts. Without further ado, here are 12 good reasons to get excited for the new album…
1. Paper Gods (feat. Mr Hudson)
When I interviewed Nick Rhodes for my book, Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s, we discussed his decades-long desire for Duran songs to have compelling intros. “I’m always taken by that thing that catches my ear that I haven’t heard before,” he said, citing the camera clicks that commence “Girls On Film.” (Not to mention, the haunting synths at the start of “The Chauffeur,” the No…No… from “Notorious,” the quick and menacing beats that wind up “The Wild Boys”….) “Paper Gods” (which is currently available for streaming online) proudly carries this tradition forward, opening with Mr Hudson singing a few lines of the chorus delivered as a moody acapella in the vein of a Gregorian chant by way of Elbow. (Well, Nick: I can honestly say I’ve not heard anything quite like that before.) From there, “Paper Gods” takes us on a seven-minute-long journey, its myriad twists and turns re-calling another one of Duran’s epic lead-off tracks, “The Valley,” from Red Carpet Massacre. It’s a daring, confident way to open an album, and a reminder that, even today, when iTunes has created a culture in which listeners usually cherry-pick tracks from a record rather than play them in the order in which they were presented, Duran Duran continues to take pleasure in such details — and demands that we do too. “Paper Gods” is a song that says, “You’re in for a ride — buckle up!”
2. Last Night in the City (feat. Kiesza)
First, Simon invites Mr Hudson to be the first voice we hear on Paper Gods. Then he lets Kiesza kick off this anthemic dance number with a featured vocal so powerful, the whole of the studio probably shook when she unleashed it. But it wasn’t a totally selfless act. As Simon told me recently, “The girl sings her ass off, and that really did get the best out of me.” He won’t get any argument here: The first time I heard “Last Night in the City,” I had to retrieve my jaw from the floor of Duran Duran’s NYC HQ. Not only does Simon succeed in going head to head with a powerhouse singer, he does so while singing at the top of his range. Turns out, after a few years of rebuilding with a voice therapist, “I developed a power I’ve never had before — it’s the power of being in a completely relaxed manner,” he says. “When I listen to older recordings, particularly live things, I was much more strained. I’ve learned to relax my whole head, neck, shoulders, chest when I sing.” Following the trio of shows earlier this month, I can re-port that Simon sounds better than ever, and I look forward to hearing “Last Night in the City” live.
3. You Kill Me With Silence
The product of the band’s first writing session with Mr Hudson, “You Kill Me With Silence” — the third Paper Gods track to be streamed online — is instantly likable. Its echoey chorus evokes vintage Duran Duran (think: “Is There Anyone Out There?”), while sinister synths and the use of keyboard bass give it a thoroughly modern feel (which is so interesting: Synths sounded like the future in the late seventies and early eighties, then they were verboten during the grunge nineties; these days, they’re embraced by a new generation via EDM). However, according to Hudson, the song germinated with Roger, who experiments with sounds and rhythmic patterns, produced with both live and electric drums, on “You Kill Me With Silence,” as well as on many of the other tracks. “Roger was very happy to try some stuff — for example, normally you hit the bass drum with the [foot] pedal, right? He ended up playing it with sticks!” The result is a steady, majestic beat that propels the chorus. Also, I can very much relate to the lyrics,” having died a thousand deaths at the hands of lovers wielding silent treatments. “[Simon and I] were talking about relationship dramas and the fact that silence is such a weapon,” says Hudson. “Sometimes the smaller, quieter contexts are more tactful, more effective.” The next time my husband opts for shutting down rather than shouting it out, I’m going to turn this track up to 11.
4. Pressure Off (feat. Janelle Monáe and Nile Rodgers)
Super sexy and ultra-funky, “Pressure Off” is Duran Duran’s strongest single in decades — probably going back as far as 1993’s “Come Undone.” I wandered into a store yesterday that was blaring “Pressure Off” as broadcast by a New York City radio station, and it was followed by a pumped-up DJ announcing, “That’s the new one from Duran Duran!” And let’s not forget, the track’s co-written by Nile Rodgers, the man behind one of the two biggest smashes of the decade (“Get Lucky”), as well as Mark Ronson, the guy who gave us the other one (“Uptown Funk”). As exciting as it sounds on record, “Pressure Off” may be even better in concert. When the legendary Chic guitarist joined Duran — as well as the unbelievably effervescent Janelle Monáe — on-stage at FOLD, there was so much energy, I thought the audience might spontaneously combust. Meanwhile, the kid-on-Christmas-morning look on JT’s face said it all: “Pressure Off” puts him squarely in the pleasure groove.
5. Face For Today
Could this be the second single? Paper Gods’ sing-your-heart-out-while-you’re-driving song, “Face For Today” is contemporary Duran Duran at their best. Driven by trance-y keyboard stabs, the track boasts another brooding, classic-Duran chorus, a wonderfully atmospheric, sweeping instrumental breakdown, and lots of swagger courtesy of Mr Le Bon. P.S., I’ve always loved the way Simon's voice sounds when he harmonizes with himself, and "Face For Today" has this in spades.
Or: “The One That Has Lindsay Lohan On It.” There was a collective groan from the fanbase the day the band posted a photo of Lohan visiting them in the studio. But as a former editor-in-chief of Teen People who’d seen every one of her movies (Just My Luck was even co-written by my Mad World co-conspirator, Jonathan Bernstein) and heard every last one of her songs, I was intrigued. And you know what? Her spoken-word bridge — which Nick says was inspired by Vincent Price’s in “Thriller” — is a hoot. She plays a doctor treating a patient suffering from — you guessed it — dance-phobia. Ridiculous? Of course! But the song is such a disco party-starter and so undeniably catchy, it just works. Setlist suggestion: Duran should work up a live mash-up of “Dancephobia” and the R&B classic “The Groove Line” (i.e. Roger’s favorite song of all time) by Heatwave.
7. What Are The Chances?
Do you remember the first time you heard “Ordinary World”? How you loved it so immediately and so completely? How the weeping guitar and Simon’s wistful lyrics made you realize Duran Duran wasn’t just yours alone but a band with the kind of mass, crossover appeal that could make a fan of every human being on planet earth (even these monks)? “What Are the Chances?” (which Hudson says was almost titled “A Diamond Explodes”) is Paper Gods’ “Ordinary World,” an elegy that’s as timeless as it is modern, as solemn as it is hopeful. Destined to be a fan favorite, it’s a shimmering ballad that packs an emotional wallop thanks in large part to John Frusciante’s stunning virtuoso guitar (it cannot be overstated how much beauty he brings to Paper Gods), as well as Goldfrapp violinist Davide Rossi and Josh Blair’s stirring strings arrangement. While I’m a fan of both Red Carpet Massacre (massively underrated record) and All You Need is Now, there’s a best-in-class quality to the guest musicians’ contributions on Paper Gods that puts it on a higher plane.
8. Sunset Garage
What a weird Duran Duran song! Musically, “Sunset Garage” is so bright and cheery and optimistic — Um, is that a xylophone I hear?! — that makes it stands out like Dorothy’s ruby slippers. Two friends who've heard it have labeled it the “Taste of Summer" of the album, because of the way Simon elongates the lyrics in the verses. However, “Sunset Garage” is way more innocent and sixties girl group-sounding to make that comparison (in my humble opinion!). This song just surprised the hell out of me — in a good way!
9. Change the Skyline (feat. Jonas Bjerre)
Paper Gods runs deep. Each week I have a new favorite track. First it was “Paper Gods”; then it was “What Are the Chances”; then it was “The Universe Alone.” Currently, it’s “Change the Skyline.” It’s an uplifting contemporary dance track, and in 2015 that often translates to “EDM.” But while I understand why people are tempted to describe this and other songs on Paper Gods as belonging to this of-the-moment genre — I myself have done it — that’s actually not quite right. Most EDM tracks are ridiculously simple compositions, while “Change the Skyline,” “Dancephobia” and “Last Night in the City” are multi-layered and far more sophisticated. Also, you don’t really want to take an EDM tune home with you — it only works at a crowded nightclub or festival. But all the intricacies of “Change the Skyline” make it a fantastic song to listen to via a pair of headphones. Finally, this song’s led me to discover the gorgeous ethereal music of Jonas Bjerre and his band, Mew — highly recommended!
10. Butterfly Girl
Yet another song that makes you want to go dancing, “Butterfly Girl” soars on the wings of yet more incendiary electric guitar by Frusciante, as well as longtime Duran backup singer Anna Ross’ “Come Undone”-like call back as the inner voice of a woman who's wallowing a bit too long in her post-breakup misery. The band's always had a penchant for meshing female vocals with Simon’s — from the ta-la-la-la’s of “The Reflex” to Kelis’ eerie contribution to "The Man Who Stole A Leopard”— but on Paper Gods, it plays even more of a supporting role.
11. Only in Dreams
This is the top contender for my favorite song of next week. While the intro is as light and airy as a helium balloon floating up, up, and away, Nile’s unmistakable guitar riffs and JT’s Bernard Edwards-like bass grooves join forces to jolt “Only in Dreams” back to earth. That may be my favorite moment on the whole of Paper Gods — there’s just so much sheer joy in their jam! Simon says Nile’s parts were lifted from an eleven-minute solo: “It was amazing! Nile’s got a special energy nobody else has. You should see the guy standing there playing guitar — he’s just a big grin.” I sense the same exhilaration emanating from John, Simon, Nick and Roger these days; they seem to be having the time of their lives making music with producers who know what they’re capable of and want to coax it out of them. “I know exactly what you’re talking about, and I think you’re absolutely right,” Simon says. “With this stage that the band is at right now have come a lot of really great things. One of them is we accept who we are. And other people accept who Duran Duran are as well. We don’t feel the same criticism from the music press that we used to. I think people realize that Duran Duran are here to stay. Our positive attitude and our joy in creativity have outlasted the haters. Because, let’s face it, it takes a lot more energy to hate than it does to love. Our music comes from a place of love.”
12. The Universe Alone
I’ve always had a fondness for Duran’s darker material, the songs that sound like they’ve been plucked from the soundtrack of an imaginary European art film from the 1970s. Vintage gems like “The Chauffeur” and “The Seventh Stranger” belong to this special subset, as do later offerings like “Midnight Sun,” “The Man Who Stole A Leopard,” and, representing for Paper Gods, “The Universe Alone.” Symphonic and cinematic, it reminds me of the chilling final scene in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, in which Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg await their doom while sitting cross-legged in a field as another planet smashes into Earth. (My husband, meanwhile, says that “The Universe Alone” reminds him of that moment in Gravity when George Clooney sacrifices himself by letting go of Sandra Bullock’s hand and floats off into space.) Explaining that the song is “about oblivion and death,” Hudson says: “I wanted to make it sound like the end of the universe, the opposite of the Big Bang: burning impossibly hot and crunching, and then just disappearing into singularity.” And yet, somehow, the song doesn’t come across as bleak; it simply asks us to accept that the the universe is bigger than us and that we have to surrender to it — which is quite freeing, actually. Post-Armageddon, “The Universe Alone” concludes with a host of angels (actually, the Voce Chamber Choir and the London Youth Chamber Choir) welcoming us to the after-world. To be continued? I certainly hope so. “The Universe Alone” is Duran Duran at the height of their powers, a song that proves that after 37 years not only do they still have it in them to make fantastic music, they’ve just refilled the gas tank. Bow to the Paper Gods, indeed!