Monday, September 21, 2015

Duran Duran--Paper Gods

For me, there is no joy, no sin, no rapture so exquisite as removing a brand new Duran Duran record from the wrapper.

It's ritualistic. It's ethereal. It's any other adjective you can come up with to sufficiently weird you out even more over my total fandom for Duran Duran. Their 14th album release, Paper Gods, came to me on my birthday. I've spent the past week giving it multiple listens, allowing it to digest properly. That's necessary for me to gain a full understanding with their music as the band has never made the same record twice. While that's a mark in the positive column for them, I'm a bit apprehensive as the previous record, All You Need Is Now was just so damn good with them going back to their roots. Part of me would almost like them to record AYNIN part II, but I can't imagine how boring that would be for them as artists. So I've listened to Paper Gods more than a few times by now and I'm able to provide you with what I feel is a fair, track-by-track analysis:

1. "Paper Gods"--The title track opens with an acapella chorus, evoking a gospel spiritual. This, suffice it to say, is a new sound for Duran. I was blown away by it, seemingly by design as it is the first sound you hear on the record. In its own way, this is reminiscent of the camera sounds at the start of "Girls On Film" on the band's very first album. It jars you. It forces you to sit up and listen to what's coming next. The song then takes you on and up and down journey until finishing out in a low-key breathy fashion. Reminded me of Nine Inch Nails from Year Zero or the Ghosts sessions....and I obviously mean that as the highest compliment possible. Of course the words are wonderful. They're really taking a materialistic, capitalistic society to task.

2. "Last Night in the City"--OK, obviously they wanted to make a dance record. Duran Duran is a band that has always kept themselves musically relevant and EDM is the sound du jour of the clubs and such. While this is quite catchy and I normally enjoy such electronically-driven pieces, EDM just makes me picture a dance floor full of "bros" pumping their fists. It's also reminiscent of 2007's Red Carpet Massacre, which I sadly was not a fan of. Still, I can't praise my favorite band on one hand for never making the same record twice and on the other hand complain when it doesn't go my way musically. They always want to branch out so I say let 'em.
UPDATE: This one is really starting to grow on me.

3. "Kill Me with Silence"--Now THIS is the stuff! Just listen to those creepy opening notes, taking me all the way back to "The Chauffeur" (a Duran masterpiece as any devoted fan will tell you.) This is Nick Rhodes at his finest, It's haunting, much in the same way as "Is There Anyone Out There" is. Best of all, it contains an allusion, one I've confirmed with Katy Krassner of Ask Katy fame. There is a line that goes "drive another lad insane." The first time I heard that lyric, I thought it was "Aladdin Sane." I thought it might be an allusion to Bowie, given the band's history with him. Sure enough it is. Oh and that line "couldn't be much worse in hell" really got to me.

4. "Pressure Off"--This one had to grow on me. I like Nile Rodgers, one of the producers on the record and a long time collaborator with the band. I am not, however, not big on "Duran funk." To get an idea of what I mean by that, take a listen to most any track off of 1986's Notorious (a good album, just not one of my favorites from the band.) But as wise philosophers from Miami once said, "rhythm's gonna get you." I can no longer keep myself from tapping my toes, bobbing my head, and singing along with the chorus. You got me, Nile. You got me.
Oh and I'm sure JT is going rock the house live with this song's bass track.

5, "Face for Today"--Again, this one's just too EDM-dancey for my tastes. And yet...and yet...that chorus. That chorus just pulls me right in and says "Dude, you're not going anywhere." Musically, you can tell on this track just how much Duran can keep a synth sound fresh, keeping up with and stacking up against anything being played in dance clubs right now. This track also has plenty of Simon harmonizing with himself, something he is uniquely adept at among singers.

6. "Dancephobia"--'Tis a silly thing. No thanks.

7. "What Are the Chances?"--Unbelievable. Utterly amazing. The harmonics. The layered sounds. The interwoven shreds of guitar. This is a "slow jam" of sheer beauty and rendered in way that only Duran Duran can deliver. I'm fully ready to put this song on the same level as "Ordinary World" and that's saying something.
I think I just listened to it for the 100th time in the past week. Please play this one live, guys. "A diamond explodes..." Oh man, those strings at the end! I'm gushing! I'm gushing! Fanboy alert!

8. "Sunset Garage"--This one shocked the bejeezus out of me. I suddenly found myself transported to an episode of Mad Men, complete with Don Draper driving along the California coast in a convertible. Seriously, it sounds like something The Supremes would have done. Lively. Peppy. Motown-y. I shouldn't like it as I'm a hardcore fan of the New Wave sound (still have All You Need Is Now playing on a weekly basis.) but you know what? I love this song. There. I said it. It's a happy tune and can't we all use more happy? Kudos to the band for still knowing how to surprise all these years later. Who knows what else is in their toolbox.

9. "Change the Skyline"--It's okay. Another dance track. Not bad. Worth checking out, but tends to be one I skip over as I replay the album.

10. "Butterfly Girl"--This is my jam! Reminds me of the kind of hard-edged funk that Prince would kick out. There's also a wonderful use of female vocals of the kind the band is known for with songs like "The Reflex," "Election Day" (yes, I know that's Arcadia), and "The Man Who Stole a Leopard." Could turn me into a dancer...or at least it will if they play it live. Can't wait.

11. "Only in Dreams"--There are real moments of brilliance in this song. It opens with slow strings that epitomize just how wonderful electronic music can be. Then come along a few just plain strange sounds that enervate the song overall for me. On the plus side, John really rocks it out on this one.

12. "The Universe Alone"--A true spiritual quality pervades this track. It is somber, it is haunting, and it is just quite moving in general. It brings to mind "Midnight Sun" from Medazzaland (a favorite song of mine from my favorite Duran album) but more upbeat and evocative of a space voyage...something I'm sure you know by now I'm unopposed to. It is placed brilliantly as a bookend to the opening chorus of "Paper Gods," closing out with a choir briefly coupled with an industrial rumble worthy of NIN. So good.


13. "Planet Roaring"--WOW!! How the hell was this a bonus track? It should be front in center. It is a jam. I mean a jam. Just can't stop playing it. Oh yeah it also features Steve Jones on guitar from The Sex Pistols. This is the best song on the album. PLEASE play this live!

14. "Valentine Stones"--Somewhat catchy chorus but it just falls flat for me. If played live, that's probably when I'll go get a drink. Then be unable to get back to my seat for a gem like "Reflex" or "Wild Boys." Nah, forget the drink.

15. "Northern Lights"--Ominous at the onset, but mellowing out into a smooth, Beatles-like chorus. It truly does have a polar quality to it as the title suggests, bringing with it a sense of cold air. I know that sounds weird, but it's the best way I have to describe it.

The upshot? It's just not quite as good as All You Need Is Now, but that might just be my own tastes. I think you can tell there are still plenty of amazing songs on here and I certainly wouldn't be without this record. Apparently, plenty of others agree with me as Paper Gods debuted at the number 10 slot on the Billboard 100. Takes me back to those heady times in the early 1980s when "Is There Something I Should Know?" debuted at #1 in Britain. Duran Duran have done it again. They are musical gods, true, but they are hardly paper.

All bow.

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