Modern, modern, modern.
That's all Duran Duran ever wanted to be, bassist John Taylor tells me.
For a band that fashioned its persona from bits of glam rock, disco, and punk in the late-1970s and early-1980s -- and transformed music video into the popular format it became in that era -- what does modern mean in 2011?
Duran Duran, 2010. From left: Simon LeBon, John Taylor, Roger Taylor, Nick Rhodes. Photo courtesy of Press Here. Photo credit: Stephanie Pistel.
Here's the part where I bravely compare Duran Duran's longevity to that of the Rolling Stones' -- and posit, for your consideration, that DD's brand-new album, All You Need is Now, is as good as it gets:
Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, and other solo performers aside, there aren't many groups who return to form thirty years after their first album was released. The Stones' Voodoo Lounge (1994) was middling at best. U2's excellent No Line on the Horizon (2009) had moments of downright brilliance, but was a considered a bit of a departure in style. Who else is there?
Although the guys aren't playing on Broadway like they did in the promotional lead-up to the release of 2007's Timberland-helmed Red Carpet Massacre, you'll be seeing (and hearing) a lot from the four remaining original members of Duran Duran over the next few weeks and months as Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes, John Taylor, and Roger Taylor -- along with proud producer Mark Ronson -- peddle All You Need is Now to a skeptical audience.
There will be TV appearances and a tour and lots of interviews with snarky journos who write about hair gel, eyeliner, hungry wolves, wild boys, and the legions of screaming females who've followed the band into their 40s and 50s. (I'm guilty of being both one of those girls as well as a hack who, in spite of my devotion, has penned my share of clever jabs at DD's reputation for style over substance.)
But after listening to the undeniably satisfying new tracks ("All You Need is Now," "Leave a Light On") on Now, it's time for you, me, and everyone else to face up to the fact that Duran Duran is here to stay -- and to acknowledge that the band's appeal is directly related to its ability to make good music. 80 million records later, why would these guys still be together, if not?
John Taylor says the members of Duran Duran have asked themselves that same question often over the years.
"We came up as a pop band. We weren't a group like Radiohead. We were a group that came up writing hits," Taylor says. "And when the hits dry up, you obviously go through a period of thinking, 'Are we still relevant? Is there a place for us?' So often, when you're starting out on a journey of writing songs for a new album, in the back of your mind, there's this sense of, 'Do we have anything to say? Is this going to find an audience?'"
Of collaborating with Ronson (a noted Duran Duran fan) on All You Need is Now, Taylor says that the process, which involved marathon songwriting and rewriting sessions, instilled a new sense of self-esteem in the band.
"We didn't have to consider all the time whether what we were doing was valid or whether it had any kind of contemporary currency," he says. "Mark encouraged us to be ourselves in a way that we hadn't had the confidence to be in quite a few years."
If you're wondering what Duran Duran "being themselves" sounds like, their 1981 debut and 1982's Rio are good places to start. Yet, in as much as All You Need is Now recalls Rio's most recognizable sonic elements -- repetitive choruses, plentiful keyboards, and the dancy beats that bridged the gap between disco and techno -- it has much more in common with the crop of recent bands (The Killers, Franz Ferdinand) that cite Duran Duran as a major influence.
Now features an interesting cross-section of contributors, including a rap by the Scissor Sisters' Ana Matronic (coolly channeling Deborah Harry), milkshaker Kelis on guest vocals, and string arrangements by Arcade Fire's Owen Pallett. Rather than sounding like Duran Duran trying to sound like Duran Duran, though, "Stay," "The Man Who Stole a Leopard," and "Being Followed" sound like Duran Duran simply being Duran Duran -- which is the best thing to happen to a Duran Duran record since 1993's The Wedding Album.
Although plenty of kudos go to Ronson, whose work as a DJ and with artists such as Amy Winehouse and Adele have made him a hot commodity in the industry, the band's own sweat equity is what pays off here. Tracks such as "Girl Panic" and "Blame the Machines" remind us why we got caught in DD's web in the first place: LeBon's vocals sound better than they did when he was 25; the Taylor-Taylor rhythm section is expectedly fun and funky; and there's no escaping Rhodes' full-bodied electronic aura. (To boot, longtime guitarist Dom Brown performs admirably in lieu of original member Andy Taylor.) It's almost the "Fab Five" all over again.
"Duran Duran is this chemistry of these musical personalities working off of each other, and those personalities are back on this album," Taylor says of the noticeable spark in the new songs.
Will All You Need is Now surprise folks who thought that Duran Duran didn't have any more tricks up its sleeve? Probably. Do these fresh grooves give women (and men) of a certain age reason to dance around the room, reveling in the sheer exuberance of this reinvigorated version of the band they once -- or maybe even always -- knew and loved? Absolutely.
But don't dare mention the word "retro" to a band who's so clearly enjoying the power of Now.
"That goes back to being modern," Taylor laughs. "Modernism is a position and it does not look back."
All You Need is Now is released exclusively on iTunes December 21st in the U.S. Click here to listen.
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