All You Need Is Now ***
Blame The Machines ****
Being Followed *****
Leave A Light On ****
Safe (in The Heat Of The Moment) **
Girl Panic! **
A Diamond In The Mind **
The Man Who Stole A Leopard ***
Other People’s Lives ***
Too Bad You’re So Beautiful ***
Runway Runaway *****
Return To Now ***
Before The Rain *****
The Duran roadshow rumbled on – it’s as if they knew no other way. The previous few years had been, in many ways, more of the same. A career that had lurched around the 1990s seeking a direction had led to the reunion. Unfortunately, this had not found the solace required. A double-hit of Andy quitting and ‘Reportage’ being rejected led to the cobbled-together-with-stars Red Carpet Massacre. The familiar story of commercial disaster followed, leaving Duran back where they had been (sales-wise) with Pop Trash. Now what?
The band made three decisions. First, they were not going to let the critical and commercial failure of Red Carpet Massacre to deter them from writing more music. Second, they were going to allow Dom Brown into the mix as co-writer. Brown would not be an official “member” of Duran Duran, but nor would he simply be a session guitarist. Now, he could take an active part in the writing process (and get to lose musical arguments with Nick just like everyone else in the band). And third, the band would work with another “hot” producer, Mark Ronson, to help them get back on track. Ronson, at the time, was already a big deal, having worked with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Christina Aguilera, and Adele. The band and Ronson collaborated for a concert in France in 2008, and that paved the way for him to helm All You Need Is Now.
After claiming for all those years to be cutting-edge and modern, the band allowed themselves to fall into the welcoming arms of a retro-sound. They decided to promote the album as not so much Return To Now, as Return To Rio. Unusually this was what they had determinedly decided NOT to do with 2004's Astronaut, but presumably by 2010, needs must. 14 years after vandalising the Rio smile on the back cover of Medazzaland, Duran were now avowedly smothering themselves in nostalgia.
The extent to which the music managed to maintain this manifesto (or standards of 1981-83) was not immediately evident in the art work. Another mess of unpleasant colours and graphics greeted us on the album cover. This contrasts hugely with the classy images of the band (such as the ones you see illustrating this review).
In many ways, as much as All You Need Is Now harkens back to the retro Duran style and sound, it actually follows the Red Carpet Massacre formula: Hot producer, and numerous collaborations. The band added another modern trick, by releasing an abridged version of the album online first, in December 2010. This nine-track version would later be augmented by the physical release in March 2011, that added three songs, plus various b-sides.
The album and new era starts with a noise that is most unwelcoming and hardly reminiscent of the promised manifesto for an early-80s sound. The discombobulating effect is not improved by a squawking Le Bon vocal. The chorus , however, is everything you want it to be, blending a nostalgia for the past with a forward-facing positivity for today. It succeeds in a live-for-now ethos far better than the overly-forced positivity of the later Pressure Off. The chorus features a swirl of sounds as the band joins together to achieve lift-off. It is pure joy —maybe their best, most uplifting and memorable chorus since New Moon on Monday – and exactly what we want Duran Duran to sound like. Right at the top of the album we have a Friends of Mine redux: an industrial, gritty verse followed by an uplifting, pop chorus.
The video triggers this return to the past by marrying gritty black and white footage of the band playing the song in a sparse studio setting, alongside a storyline about a new romantic looking dude and two girls going to a party. The guy’s resemblance to a young Warren Cuccurullo is more than a little jarring, and leaves one to wonder if it was intentional. Later on, Roger visits a Birmingham record store, Nick walks through a graveyard, and the band (with Dom in tow) pose for group pictures. To emphasise a more recent side of Duran's heritage, we get treated to a fast montage of post-reunion highlights. It's a powerful statement of intent.
Blame The Machines takes the best of the opening track and launches into a sound we have been waiting for since 1983. Lyrically it harkens back to Playing with Uranium by being based on a real event. This time it's of a guy driving the wrong way on a highway thanks to a faulty GPS, but metaphorically it could also be about a misunderstanding in a relationship. The track is let down by an extended final minute which achieves little before finally stumbling to a finish.
In contrast, Being Followed resurrects the glory of 1981 in a perfect 3 and half minutes. It is the most guitar driven song on the album, with Dom capturing those Andy stabs, updating an 80’s sounds for the new century. The song completes a fitting trilogy of “old school” Duran songs to kick off the new album.
Leave A Light On is by far the best of the trio of reunion ballads (joining What Happens Tomorrow and What Are The Chances). All have titles that lend themselves to what in the 80s would have been ‘lighters aloft’ and today is ‘mobile phone torches on’. This one joins them in being a questioning, unsure song. It also has an intro that harkens back to Save A Prayer or A Matter Of Feeling. From the early videos released during these recording sessions, in early 2009, you can hear Dom playing Leave A Light On, and it doesn’t sound markedly different from what ended up on the album (this is pre-Ronson’s involvement). The lack of over production is a huge positive, whilst lyrically, at its most basic level, the song can be taken as an olive branch to the fans from the band, especially after the Red Carpet Massacre debacle.
After establishing a sound foundation of an 80's sound or theme, the wheels somewhat come off. Safe and Girl Panic! take us back to the lumpen funk of UMF, So Misled and Mars Meets Venus. If looking for a twin from the first three albums, the closest suggestion is the original version of The Reflex.
Every Duran album seems to have one or two songs that you immediately dismiss, but then later grow to love; and conversely, one or two you can’t stop playing at first, but gradually grow weary of. Girl Panic! would fall into the latter category. It is blatantly trying to be a 21st century Girls on Film. On paper, the song seems to work fine; it’s catchy, it’s cute, it’s fun – it's a Duran song about girls! It was even a single, featuring a video with Yasmin and a bunch of super models posing as the band. (I personally found the guitarist joke to be in poor taste and a slap in the face of Brown). In short, it tried really, really hard. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work as well as it should, nor as well as most of the other material on the album.
6 tracks in, 6 to go, but these latter tracks are broken up by throw-backs to the title song, a nod to the interludes on Big Thing and Pop Trash. Our first detour comes after the stumbles. Next we are returned to the synth sounds evoking The Chauffeur in The Man Who Stole A Leopard.
The Man Who Stole A Leopard anchors the second half of All You Need Is Now in much the same way Land does on the b-side of Big Thing. It’s a song that the risk-averse, stick-to-the-pop-format Astronaut-era of the band would never have attempted. Featuring Kelis, the song tells the story of a man trying to tame a wild animal. Le Bon and Kelis’s vocals seamlessly mesh, even while the structure of the song is essentially a back and forth between the man and the animal (or the man and his conscience?). It’s a combination that’s extremely effective and vaguely reminiscent of Come Undone. Leopard starts off slow, and then builds to a rousing finish, replete with Dom’s guitar and Roger’s drums leading the proceedings. Then the band adds a spoken word coda to finish the song, with Nina Housein returning to read a pseudo news report that is literally about a man who stole a leopard. It’s an unnecessary addition.
Mediterranea is a mid-tempo ode to the beauty of warm beachside weather, evoking in the listener a taste of summer perhaps more so than any other song in Duran’s catalogue. It clearly seems to be one of two songs on the album built around a Dom Brown guitar riff. Just as his guitar expressed the protagonist's paranoia in Being Followed, here we are drawn wistfully into the serenity of gorgeous blue skies, surf and sand. Of course, on a deeper level, it’s also a metaphor for believing that there is a better life out there, somewhere else, echoing the familiar Duran optimism. It’s a highlight of the album, another moment when all the parts of Duran come together to produce a wonderful track.
Elsewhere on this second half are three fun pop songs that have a far better ability to get me up and dancing than the forced fun of Safe and Girl Panic! Other People’s Lives is a throwaway pop song that might have been better served up as a bonus track. Making pop-culture references is a dangerous game as it dates songs rather badly. It has a nice energy and verve, but it is as disposable as the subject it covers. Too Bad You’re So Beautiful bounces along with the energy and dynamism of Last Chance On The Stairway. Best of the lot is Runway Runaway: a thrilling kitchen-sink drama that drips with pathos and emotion. It speeds to its finish, and might be my favourite three minutes on the album. Simon’s vocal is in perfect harmony with the music. Unlike the yearning and longing of Mediterranea, Runway Runaway represents a fulfilment of the call to action to move on and confront the future head-on. It is subversive, with its upbeat tempo somewhat masking the fear and uncertainty of a protagonist leaving everything familiar behind, going into the unknown. It carries a beauty and emotion not seen on a Duran album since the rousing last two minutes of Pop Trash Movie.
Preceded by the orchestral drama of Return To Now, the album-proper closes with the epic Before The Rain. It also channels The Chauffeur and marks the closest we have come since 1985 to the Arcadia sound. This may not be so surprising as it is one of only two songs on this album to be written by three-quarters of that group (which is one more than on Paper Gods). It, too, is evocative of summer, but we’re far from the sand and surf of Mediterranea. Far from playing with children on the beach, here we are bracing for the dark, rumbling thunderstorms that roll over the countryside, seeking shelter while wandering amid the rubble of past relationships.
All You Need Is Now is simultaneously the easiest Duran Duran album to critique, and the hardest. It broke new ground by not breaking new ground. And yet All You Need Is Now is much more than just a rehash of Rio; it harkens back as much to the 1981 debut album, and includes nods to other eras of the band, even the machimso of the 1990s. With the momentum of the reunion having quickly run aground on the familiar rocks of commercial indifference and creative mahem, Duran Duran needed a solid album that restored the faith of the fan base, and maybe even within the band itself. They came up with the closest they have bothered to come to deliberately recreating their pop glory. This review suggests that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, but this is an exceptional album, arguably their best since the 1980s. It saved the band as much as the Wedding Album, and has allowed their career to be defined and ended on their own terms.
Mood board above created for Cherry Lipstick by @BeMyIcon The Paper Goddess
This is the 13th Cherry Lipstick album review, a series that celebrates the music of Duran Duran through an in-depth fan-written retrospective of every album. The other albums completed are:
Seven and the Ragged Tiger
The Wedding Album
Red Carpet Massacre
You can link them to them all here
(where you'll also find a review of So Red The Rose and a Simon le Bon solo album)
Duran Duran (the debut album)