The story of Duran Duran since they reunited their classic lineup in 2001 has been one of a band trying to find where they fit in modern music. Their brand of new wave and synthpop never really left, but as groups like The Killers and Franz Ferdinand rose to prominence in the mid 2000s, it became evident that Duran Duran had cemented an influential legacy. Not content to remain in the past, they tried staying contemporary with 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, experimenting by working with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. The album did poorly both critically and commercially, so the band switched gears on 2010’s All You Need Is Now, swapping Timbaland for producer Mark Ronson, whose style and overall sound was a much better fit for the group. All You Need Is Now did better than its predecessor, a somewhat back-to-basics approach that found them solidly executing the formula they perfected in the ‘80s, albeit without adding anything new to the mix.
The 2015 iteration of Duran Duran, keeping with the core group of Simon Le Bon, John Taylor, Nick Rhodes, and Roger Taylor, meets somewhere in the middle. On Paper Gods, the band sticks with a sound that isn’t markedly different from where they were operating 35 years ago, but they also work with a group of guests (some more surprising than others) that makes them as relevant in today’s pop landscape as at any point in the past two decades. Part of this can be attributed to the likes of Ronson and Pharrell, producers who have been molding pop in the past five years with a heavy ‘80s dance-rock influence, with songs like “Uptown Funk” and “Blurred Lines” dominating the radio. Duran Duran doesn’t have to reach very far to find today’s pop hits, and their results are better for it.
Paper Gods’ success largely comes from Duran Duran taking a more patient, deliberate approach. Recording began in 2013; in 2014, the group began sessions with Mr Hudson (known to many for his work on Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne) and ended up reworking many of the tracks. Hudson has a penchant for soaring hooks, and that trick pairs well with Le Bon’s strengths. The band also teamed up with Ronson again and brought in legendary Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers to help produce the album. Rodgers’ touch is felt throughout, especially on single and highlight “Pressure Off”, which features his guitar and vocals from Janelle Monáe. With its invigorating funk, the song is the strongest on the album, and that interplay between collaborators makes it feel like everyone is having fun and actually wants to be there, which isn’t always the case on major label team-ups like this.
The best songs here come from this throwback, groove-oriented approach. Mid-album highlight “Danceophobia” features spoken vocals from Lindsay Lohan. While it may be jarring to see her name in the credits, it adds an extra energy to the song that works. It’s less successful when they go for a sort of EDM-influenced pop on “Last Night in the City”, which features Kiesza on vocals. The singer’s sound is undoubtedly inspired by Duran Duran, but their take on it here feels robotic compared to the energy on the album’s more disco-leaning songs.
The other guest whose appearance many may find surprising is former Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, who contributes guitar to three tracks on the album. From the funk of “Only in Dreams” to the more sweeping arrangements on album closer “The Universe Alone”, his presence is welcome as the band builds to the kind of overwrought grandeur they’re known for achieving.
While the guest musicians all add their own flair to the album, the show is run by Le Bon and co., and they don’t slack. Some of the songs are too obvious, as the lyrics to Paper Gods are meant to be a scathing indictment of Hollywood but play too cheesy even for Duran Duran. For the most part, though, they nail it with more hopeful lines, such as a moment on highlight “Sunset Garage”, when Le Bon notes, “Whatever happens, we’re still here.” For a band that’s been committed to their craft for decades, it’s a fitting and reassuring message that they’re still reaching ahead. Many others would take a relaxed, safe approach to their 14th album, but Duran Duran innovate and push further. It may be flawed in parts, but Paper Gods is an ambitious and worthwhile effort that more than justifies its existence.
Essential Tracks: “Pressure Off”, “Danceophobia”, and “Sunset Garage”