There are many ways to make a “comeback album.” There’s the “back-to-basics” record that countless bands and artists have done where they create an album that sounds like something they would have released during their heyday. Duran Duran did that in 2010 when they released the Mark Ronson-produced “All You Need is Now,” an album that consciously aped “Rio.” Another type of “comeback album” is the one released by a past-their-prime band or artist that is loaded with duets or collaborations with younger stars (Carlos Santana, more or less, perfected this with “Supernatural” in 1999).
Duran Duran’s latest effort, “Paper Gods,” is this a little bit of both. On the one hand, parts of the record are darker and more melancholy than most of the band’s 80’s-era catalog. Indeed, the album is more reminiscent of 1993’s “The Wedding Album,” which saw the band take a more mature and introspective approach. The title track, for instance, is over seven minutes long and contains this, fairly cynical lyric: “Bow to the Paper Gods in a world that is paper thin.” Meanwhile, the haunting “You Kill Me With Silence” is an uncomfortable listen, which makes sense considering it’s about how relationships are destroyed by a lack of communication.
On the other hand, there are plenty of the upbeat dance songs that we usually associate with Duran Duran. This duality causes “Paper Gods” to lack cohesion and focus – a situation that’s exacerbated by the many, many different hands that helped create the record. “Paper Gods” is loaded with collaborations and duets with guests such as longtime friend and producer Nile Rodgers, pop star Janelle Monáe, ex-Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante, Canadian singer Kiesza (I initially misread it and thought it said “Ke$ha” – that pairing would have been really weird) and even actress/walking train-wreck Lindsay Lohan, among others. Indeed, only four of the 12 songs on the regular version of the album (there’s a deluxe edition that has three additional songs) don’t feature a guest artist of some kind. There’s also a lot of collaboration going on in the control booth as Mr. Hudson and Josh Blair serve as the main producers, while Mark Ronson and Nile Rodgers also earn producing credits.
On the whole, the guest appearances work well and enhance Duran Duran’s songs. One exception is Lohan’s husky spoken-word interlude as a doctor that’s treating a patient for his/her inability to dance on “Danceophobia.” Lohan doesn’t really add much to the song, except shock value (and a tounge-in-cheek factor, given how many medications she’s usually on). The song is also one of the weaker ones on the album and is also, quite possibly, one of the corniest songs the band has ever recorded (and that’s saying something). That’s not necessarily a criticism, of course. After all, many of the band’s best moments have come from off the cob, like “The Reflex” or “Girls on Film” – heck, most of their videos look like they could have been produced by Del Monte. Duran Duran has always done sophisticated vapidity very well, but “Danceophobia” is just dumb. It’s lightweight drivel that sounds like a second-rate Kylie Minogue song.
The best of the collaborations involve Frusciante. I admit, I’m biased when it comes to the former Chili Peppers man. I think he’s the best guitarist of his generation and that the Peppers stink without him. This record marks one of Frusciante’s only forays into mainstream music since leaving the Peppers (most of his stuff has been experimental or electronic – or both), and if he’s serious about retiring from the music industry as he claimed in May, this could very well be the last thing we ever hear from him. If so, he’s going out with a bang. On the album’s soaring second single, “What Are The Chances,” Frusciante plays a melodic, David Gilmour-esque lead guitar that really gives the song it’s wings. For the bouncy, catchy “Butterfly Girl,” Frusciante revisits the loud, abrasive style he utilized on parts of “Stadium Arcadium” that earned him so many accolades. Finally, on “The Universe Alone,” he seamlessly transitions from his classic style of bouncy power chord-playing into a bluesy solo and distorted outtro. Frusciante brings a melodic sensibility and versatility that the band has lacked since Warren Cuccurullo left in 2001.
Listening to Frusciante’s last released recordings (I have my doubts that he’s really retiring, but he’s never really been about the spotlight) is reason enough to get this album. But there are other good moments on this record that don’t involve Frusciante. For one thing, Le Bon still sounds great and more than holds his own against two powerful vocalists in Monáe and Kiesza. Another highlight of the album is John Taylor’s bass playing. Taylor always seems to come alive when Rodgers produces him, and his bass lines are at their funkiest on the Rodgers co-produced songs “Pressure Off” and “Only in Dreams.” Lead single “Pressure Off,” in particular, sounds like another Rodgers-produced song from the Duran Duran back catalog – 1986’s “Notorious.”
All in all, “Paper Gods” is a decent collection of songs- some are even worthy additions to Duran Duran’s formidable library. As an album, however, it’s a disjointed affair that falls short of classics like “Rio,” “The Wedding Album” or “Seven and the Ragged Tiger.” Nevertheless, it’s worth a listen, if for no other reason than to experience John Frusciante’s genius one last time (probably).
UPDATE: 11/18/2015 – I actually listened to this album again, and I found that I liked it a lot more than I did when I first wrote this review. The songs are much catchier than I originally gave them credit for, and I found that I appreciated them more when I did my second listen to the album. I now give it an A-. “Danceophobia” is still a dumb song, though.