— -- intro: This week is jam-packed with excellent releases. Duran Duran puts out their first album in four years, blues-guitarist turned buzz-bin hopeful Gary Clark Jr. releases his second major-label album, British band the Libertines return after an 11-year hiatus, pop singer Leona Lewis celebrates a new beginning, Jewel covers familiar ground, Ben Folds goes the orchestral route and new country-folk singer Austin Plaine makes his debut. It’s another week where we have a lot to discuss.
quicklist: 1title: Duran Duran’s “Paper Gods” (Deluxe Edition) ****1/2text: If you really think about it, Duran Duran are among the fathers of many of the sounds that populate Top 40 radio in 2015. Before you scoff at that notion, go back and listen to “Rio” or any one of their eighties hits and you’ll find that synth-heavy glossy sound sounds strikingly familiar. In the eighties, Duran Duran were a rock band using elements of synth-pop to their advantage long before many of their modern pop disciples were born. Still, “Paper Gods” is a shocking, yet reassuring wake-up call, continuing on and besting the rebirth heard on their last album, 2011’s “All You Need Is Now.” That album followed the merely passable “Red Carpet Massacre.” But really this reawakening feels akin to the one felt in 1993 when the band re-emerged with the massive hit singles, “Ordinary World” (which is still their best song to date) and “Come Undone,” off their self-titled “Wedding Album.”
Duran Duran remain ever constant pop shape-shifters. This album feels strikingly modern. It feels like today’s pop radio and yet, the band never feels like some sort of eighties nostalgia act trying to stretch to sound young and hip. This record sounds very natural for them. It helps that Simon Le Bon’s voice has not changed a bit over the years. It also helps having cool friends make some key guest appearances. (When you hang with both Nile Rodgers and Mark Ronson, hits are bound to happen.) This record sports guests as varied as former Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante, Janelle Monae, pop-singer Kiesza and Kanye West-associate Mr. Hudson. When Lindsay Lohan drops in and does a fitting spoken-word bit in “Danceophobia,” it totally works.
With “Paper Gods,” the members of Duran Duran have made a record that should please both old and new fans alike. It sounds like their vintage work in many ways, but it also sounds like it has at least six or seven possible hit singles. This is a pop reawakening for this veteran band and it is the kind of album one hopes that the current programmers of the pop stations won’t ignore. As Charli XCX proved when she sang with Simon Le Bon on her standout ballad, “Kingdom” (From “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt. 1”) Duran Duran may be a bigger influence on this younger crowd than one might expect.
Above all else, this is an exceptionally-crafted pop record with strong orchestration. The breakdown alone that arrives somewhere in the middle of the seven-minute title-track is as full of artistic intention as it is with pop appeal. Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor and Roger Taylor know exactly what they are doing here. And for instance, unlike Madonna’s often excellent “Rebel Heart,” which hasn’t gotten the pop radio attention it deserves, or U2’s also decent “Songs Of Innocence” which was overshadowed by its poorly-executed Apple-assisted roll out, Duran Duran are eighties veterans doing a modern pop reinvention the right way. 34 years after their debut, they sound as fresh as ever. By all means, this should be a landmark release in their discography.
The deluxe edition is packed with three bonus tracks that don’t lessen the impact of the album on the whole. Again, this is a record a great deal of appeal. It is a triumph.
“What Are The Chances?” This is a classic electro ballad led by John Frusciante’s guitar-work. And Le Bon sings a chorus which winds and turns in intriguing ways. This song has “pop-hit” written all over it. It stands easily among their best work.
“You Kill Me With Silence” This song places the band in a post-EDM, post-hip-hop realm and they really shine. This is electro-pop gold. And the turn that Le Bon takes on the word “Silence” during the chorus sends it to another level entirely.
“Paper Gods”(Featuring Mr. Hudson) This epic opening ode to money and fame begins with what sounds like a Gregorian chant and evolves into a bit of an electro-pop symphony. Again, the breakdown at the center of the track is where the song hits its apex. (That beginning sounds more akin to something you’d hear on an album by Elbow or Doves. It is a nicely edgy move for Duran Duran.)