I had no idea that Duran Duran was still active until the day after their new album Paper Gods dropped. New releases by legendary bands, no longer at the forefront of scenes they created, are always a strange experience: the awe of hearing music history return to life is often undercut by disappointment that an artist could not live up to their reputation. So much enjoyment of well-known songs is actually found in their sense of familiarity, both in the control and comfort felt by hearing a song you know well and in the emotional attachment you’ve developed to the music.
Because of this, many bands that have authored past hits find it impossible to recreate the sense of emotional resonance that their fans associate with their music. For many older bands, it becomes easier to just churn out thinly-veiled rehashes of their older, familiar, accepted material, instead of developing their sounds and ideas as more contemporary bands are generally expected to do.
Although Paper Gods is far from a perfect album, Duran Duran clearly shows that they have more material worth listening to, unlike many of the hit acts from the ’80s that since faded into relative obscurity.
The fact that Duran Duran continues to innovate on Paper Gods is not to say that the album isn’t classic synth-pop to its core. The funky, driven dance-pop of Rio, Duran Duran’s 1982 album that best encapsulates the sonic and lyrical themes that define their sound, is still very much alive in the new album.
However, Paper Gods is Duran Duran as seen through the lens of current pop music and light EDM that has, in recent years especially, taken clear influence from ’80s synth pop. The additional personnel and features on this album, barring the notable exception of Lindsay Lohan delivering a somewhat inexplicable spoken interlude on “Danceophobia,” are picked from this modern pop scene, as is the practice of showcasing guest artist features on many tracks.
The album was produced by Pharrell Williams and Mark Ronson, two pop stars who base much of their music in nostalgia for the ’70s–early ’90s. The crazy feedback loop of Duran Duran’s music drawing on influences that were in turn inspired by their own early work creates a sound that is both emblematic of their classic hits yet also very clearly in-tune with the sounds of 2015, featuring pumping EDM rhythms and the occasional hints of trap-influenced high hat scuttles and relentless, menacing synth loops. During the intro to the third track, I could almost imagine A$AP Ferg’s ad-lib whooping as the beat drops.
It’s in moments like this, where Duran Duran finds spaces to experiment with new styles while maintaining their own signature sound, that Paper Gods truly shines. Other standouts include the apocalyptic closing track, Janelle Monáe’s feature on “Pressure Off,” and the David Byrne-like chorale that opens the album, leading into the ambitious but ultimately overly drawn-out seven-minute first track.
The tendency to drag on without developing or diverging from the relentless dance pop groove is Paper Gods’ fatal flaw. Taken as a whole, the album is an incredibly grating experience, the beat driving on endlessly without any real variations in the timbre or format of any of the songs. In some ways, I see Paper Gods as the anti-Yeezus. Kanye West’s 2014 album was a collage of extremely abrasive sounds and songs that completely defied the listener’s expectations and eschewed common song structures to include jarring interludes, intros, and outros that seemed almost totally disconnected from the whole of the album. However, through meticulous structuring and constant variations in tone and subject matter, Kanye made his deeply experimental album engaging and accessible for most listeners.
On Paper Gods, Duran Duran stay within the same upbeat, synth-driven, dance-pop tone almost exclusively. No matter how danceable, smooth, funky, and exciting their sound can be, it is a grueling experience to listen to the first half hour of pumping kick drums and pulsing synths, without so much as a bridge with a dip in intensity, let alone a more mellow song, thrown in for a break. This pacing makes the album feel like an endless slog through a disco from Hell, no matter how clean the production.
My recommendation is to not listen to the entirety of Paper Gods at all, let alone in one sitting. Instead, make sure to listen to the eponymous “Paper Gods,” “Pressure Off,” “You Kill Me with Silence,” “Change the Skyline,” and “The Universe Alone.” All of these songs are unique and worthwhile additions to both the Duran Duran discography, as well as any dance mix or DJ set, from the synth-pop to the modern club scene.