The new one.
The first time since 1983 that the same line up
had made three albums in a row.
Are you still listening to it?
Paper Gods by Ruth Galvin
Paper Gods ****
Last Night in the City *
You Kill Me With Silence **
Pressure Off ****
Face For Today ****
What Are The Chances? ****
Sunset Garage **
Change the Skyline ***
Butterfly Girl ***
Only in Dreams *****
The Universe Alone *****
Five Years. The opening track of JT's favourite Bowie album. The most recent Duran Duran album cycle. Plenty of time between to fill the creative void with hit-and-run tweets detailing lost airline luggage and faulty Hunter boots (cue a barrage of emoji-laden replies asserting SLB's consumer rights). It's a meaningless exchange that often overshadows the very art it's designed to promote. Duran's paradoxical dance of courting lust and respect at any cost for almost 40 years has ensured all attempts at philosophical gravitas are met with a prejudicial eye and mild ridicule. Yet their survival by these very tactics has shone a reverential limelight by Joe Public on the band, albeit one suspended in curiosity and disbelief. "Hey we're still alive" Simon sings.… Well, not only have they survived the hedonistic glamour, they've also learnt a thing or two, and are leaning on this new found respect to share their (ahem) 'learning journey'.
“I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and T.V.s
My brain hurt like a warehouse, it had no room to spare
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there”
Arguably Five Years captures visually and thematically the running theme of the album Paper Gods. The Rio pink telephone, the Come Undone shoe, the Wild Boys mouth illustrate our futile attempt to immortalise our lives through materialism and souvenir; the spiritual value of experience is only felt retrospectively, as a sense of loss channelled through nostalgia.
"as if we had the chance to live it all again"
The contrasting bookends of the album develop this concept; the first track chastises us for internet porn, designer clothes, and social media, whilst the closing track The Universe Alone leans on the imagery of a life-sustaining star, the sun, finally burning out. The unsettling image of The Universe Alone is to remind us how truly alone we are in death, whereas Five Years, as an album opener is more akin to Paper Gods, clamouring for distraction in materialism but also other people's lives (no pun intended), the futility of which is realised in the desperation.
“And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people
I never thought I'd need so many people”
The Paper Gods album cover is also a tongue-in-cheek pop at Duran Duran detractors. These images uniquely identify the band's visual footprint on music history, and the juxtaposition of band ephemera and disposable culture is very effective. Self-mocking, it's apparent transience is betrayed by its endurance. Here is a band finally comfortable with their place in history, continually straddling the line of high brow art and cataloguing the trashy vernacular of "now", which only reveals its own buried relevance with the passage of time. As a case in point, the extravagant glamour of their early years has been historically rewritten as a cry of dispossessed youth in Thatcher's Britain seeking fantasy and escape. So Nick can say with some confidence that history will be kind to Duran Duran, if only as social historians, a fact that had not gone unnoticed by Rolling Stone:
"via Eagles of Death Metal's version of Save a Prayer, Duran Duran accidentally came to symbolize everything humane and tolerant about secular culture in 2015, as well as its tawdriest pop pleasures."
Paper Gods is a cultural snapshot of our wayward value system. That is, the internal conflict in seeking meaningful experience whilst championing the meaningless - material goods, click-bait validation and empty platitudes. If the theme seems quite grim and philosophical, the antidote is a number of songs that seem bouncy and trite (Last Night In The City, Danceophobia and Pressure Off). The struggles of a forty-something life can serve as the impetus to relive a youth and seek connection marked by the identity of fandom. However, in our wavering between seeking meaning, and burying its disturbing significance through escape, the celebration is acknowledged but the value in that experience is not. "We're gonna live this night, yea-ah" rings fairly hollow when nobody has any understanding of why they are celebrating (however bright the melody is). In contrast, when Simon himself was forty-something he (or maybe Nick) penned songs like Starting To Remember, melancholy perhaps but a little less divorced from fan reality.
Departing from the melody-heavy tracks of well... eh pretty much every Duran album, the band have spoken at length about allowing space between the notes on Paper Gods, to allow the music to breathe. Certainly its sparse musical landscape suits in places - the raw searing vocals at the beginning of Paper Gods, or The Universe Alone. Regrettably though, without the echo of resonant instrumentation, the simplicity can fail in its execution, leaving tracks such as You Kill Me With Silence, Change The Skyline and the bulk of the track Paper Gods feeling unfinished, despite the strong songwriting within. The trade off for peace-time Duran Duran, (i.e. no Warren or Andy), is that the space that is left by all this acquiescence is presumably filled by the influences of the producer-du-jour or their latest musical flame, who then unfairly get lumped with most of the album's shortcomings by fans.
As the album sleeve echoes to past glories, so too this is reflected musically within, Paper Gods whisks the listener on a journey back through their lives as it unfolded to the soundtrack of Duran Duran. Admittedly it’s not at the cutting edge of EDM, but it's certainly a fresh sound for the band themselves with familiar echoes of Duran's own history peppered through it. What Are The Chances leans on Ordinary World, whilst Pressure Off, Butterfly Girl and Only In Dreams have flavours of Notorious (Nile Rodgers is gloriously irrepressible). Face For Today sounds like it belongs on All You Need Is Now. And, whilst technically not within discussion here, the bonus tracks Valentine Stones and Cinderella Ride are classic early New Romantic Duran.
Can an album in the sense of a novel exist in a world where history is documented in 140 characters? The sequential development of theme is mutilated by shuffle streaming. Recall those interviews where Simon begged us to listen JUST ONCE to the album in the order it was recorded "from its opening note to its closing echo." Let's oblige!
In Paper Gods, Simon preaches the about our "paper thin" sense of value, a litany of sins demanding reflection and repentance, in his best vocal performance on the album. JT provides a solid organic backbeat to compensate for the more synthetic aspects of the song musically. The backing vocals lend this sparse song some much needed volume in the bridge, sadly evaporating towards the under-serviced chorus, in turn also taking from the middle eight because the contrast between it and the chorus is not enough. It is only when all the vocal harmonies and fuller sound instrumentals flesh it out at the end, that the song's full potential is finally realised. It's SLB's favourite song, and from a songwriting perspective that's an opinion this writer shares, but its arrangement lacks momentum and detracts from it's glory.
Last Night In The City provides us with its vacuous message of forced positivity, that evokes more a feeling of plodding on a treadmill than a life-affirming night out. You Kill Me With Silence suffers the same sparse fate as Paper Gods, only without the later redemption - a plodding chorus, vocoder vocals, and everyone sounds like they are playing with one finger.
The band readily acknowledge Nile Rodgers' mere presence raises the musical bar every time, notably the arrangements are more balanced and the rhythm section is tighter, so logically Pressure Off is a standout track. John is playing "the fucking bass" à la Bernard Edwards, carrying the melody the way every Duran Duran fan secretly prays for. Yes there are a few synth and drum sound effects that grate slightly and won't age well, and the hand-claps and recorded concert noises smack of insincere joviality. Fundamentally, however, this song reminds you why you love Duran Duran, and most essentially, our collective musical saviour Nile Rodgers.
Face For Today has a dark mysterious underbelly lyrically: "live beside it laughing till you're crying" and an emptiness in its heart of throwaway platitudes, in sharp contrast to its celebratory tone musically. One is reminded of the face we outwardly present versus the person within. Frustratingly the drum machine is back, but the intro promises a rich chorus beyond the more musically sterile verse. Deliciously rich strings by Goldfrapp violinist Davide Rossi and co-producer Josh Blair fill it out beautifully.
Danceophobia is Duran Duran's modern interpretation of their disco roots. If considered a homage and thank you to Chic, the 70 plus alleged versions then appear a rational level of effort to honour Nile Rodgers, the unofficial member of Duran Duran. It's fun, it's funny, it's funky, slightly sleazy, perfect for a night on the dance floor, and umm yes .....it's diabolical live.
The torch song of the album, What Are The Chances, is a rousing emotive ballad, with the virtuoso talents of John Frusciante on guitar. The rhythm section of the band really bow to the might of the string and guitar performances here, which overlay perfectly pitched synth arrangements. It's not the most musically inspired melody on the album, but in a reverse situation to most tracks here, the performance outshines the song, superbly so. Lyrically "We are lost in the flow and looking for answers" provides an introspective examination of fate and choice in a universe of possibilities, and the significance of our relationships almost feel like random collisions (flow) between gas molecules. Yes... from the same pen that brought you Last Night In The City (the mind boggles). Vocally stunning, the power, range and communion of voices are almost a plea to the gods, begging for some meaning to life, and building on the theme that life's big questions deserve consideration if we are to feel truly fulfilled.
If it wasn't for Nick tinkling in the back of Sunset Garage, you'd be forgiven for wondering after 37 years, where in terms of influences they are suddenly pulling this nostalgic number from. Those elongated words are an acquired taste. Uninspiring but inoffensive nevertheless this writer appreciates the contrasting, dreamy middle eight.
With all the shameless name-dropping in promo interviews, the very talented Jonas Bjerre barely got a mention for neo-disco number Change The Skyline. Several tracks by Mew (Bjerre's band) are frustratingly superior to what Bjerre and Duran composed together, so does anyone want to acknowledge their efforts here? Change The Skyline far surpasses Last Night In The City and serves as a much better anthem for the mid life crisis generation, championing empowerment through self re-invention instead of red wine. Roger has a real presence on this track. The synth line post-chorus is harsh on the ear, sounding like a 1980's video game but by the second chorus is redeemed by a very fluid synth arrangement with fabulous harmonies. Potential finally reached, but sadly too late.
The theme of Butterfly Girl is general enough to be universally resonant but suffocates the listener once more with forced positivity, ignoring the truth that genuine optimism is borne from personal learning rather than platitudes and a need to stop feeling sad. Blanking out the electric drum kit (again), JT does an admirable job and Nile adds his fantastic rhythm guitar funk vibe to it. The overall result, despite the misgivings listed here, makes for a very accessible track.
Only In Dreams is sophisticated, sexy and woven with mystery and innuendo: the capability to see in fantasy what political correctness forbids in everyday life. "I should be nervous but my eyes forget." Sexual fantasy and torment become one, as an evil laugh echoes in the background. It opens with a haunting landscape of warm strings, interference type synth sounds, and hot sultry bass lines, perfectly constructed. Every player shines individually without domination, though it is Nick who provides the imaginatively surreal foundation to the song.
The Universe Alone is ambitious in theme, arrangement and performance, and is a stunning closing track. It's sweepingly epic and symphonic almost, yet funky. Whilst vocally impressive, Simon teeters on sounding a little overstretched in parts, which is probably why they've largely avoided it live. John Frusciante’s playing is superb but the final nod of mastery must go to Nick, who has created something of the universe being scrunched up like a piece of paper in a type of "reverse Big Bang" scenario. A masterpiece - worth waiting Five Years.
With Paper Gods, Duran Duran have caught the emoji-laden, emotionally empty but familiar vernacular of "now" and fed it back to us on "a plastic spoon". Buried within is the meaning. To travel the journey of the crap you hide in, the burden of your life, the person dying inside but show-boating to all and sundry, struggling with meaning and escape and finally seeing the bigger philosophical picture of beauty, pain heralding personal growth and existential aloneness and… in some shape or form… the immortality of human spirit? The stars of many a teenage bedroom wall might actually deserve some of that reverence they aspire to… bow to the paper gods indeed!