Album Review: Duran Duran, All You Need Is Now
All You Need Is Now
Since the economic downturn of late 2007, or maybe as far back as 9/11 and the ensuing war on everything and everyone, I’ve wanted to be anywhere but in the here and now.
To escape from the general bleakness, I throw myself into old movies, TV reruns, and classic albums. But even Duran Duran’s Arena, MTV Unplugged: Duran Duran, and Duran Duran’s self-titled debut disc grow tiresome after too many listens. Now, with the release of the Fab Five (now Four)’s 13th studio album, All You Need Is Now, I find myself as refreshed as the “Wild Boys” character after a dance in the rain. As excited as I get when my all-time favorite band releases another full-length, there’s always that underlying nervousness that I might not fully embrace it, since my expectations of the group still run high, even if they’re not always met.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the greatest challenge that the 30-year-old act faces is that their new material is rarely as well-received as their older work. 2007’s Timbaland-produced Red Carpet Massacre suffered this fate. Maybe it’s because we’re looking for another Rio or demanding that the new material sit well within today’s musical landscape—or perhaps we unjustly require the tunes to succeed in both regards.
The secret to maintaining long-term fan interest while simultaneously drawing in new listeners lies in releasing music that seamlessly blends a proven sound with a more contemporary style. Yet so few career bands, after say, the third album, ever get the balance right. Duran Duran managed to successfully marry something old and something new on 1993’s The Wedding Album, but has only subsequently achieved this feat with singles such as 1997’s “Electric Barbarella”, 2004’s “(Reach Up For The) Sunrise”, and 2007’s “Night Runner.”
Fortunately, they’ve fulfilled this happy medium to a greater extent on All You Need Is Now, which is released digitally today, and on CD and vinyl (with bonus tracks) in February. It’s not quite the follow-up to Rio as producer Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen, and Adele) has proclaimed—no, that’s Seven And The Ragged Tiger—but it might come close. But can the producer, who’s best known for making emerging artists, reinvigorate a legacy band by attempting to recreate a classic album?
Conversely, a moniker like All You Need Is Now, seems to suggest that we are to forget everything that the British pop-rock band has ever produced, and focus only on their present body of work.
But one can’t judge an album by its appellation. Although the title track opens with the Hoover sound popularized on Human Resource’s 1990 techno single “Dominator” and more recently on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, the electro-rock number still builds up to an old-school Duran Duran hook that is both catchy and anthemic with a signature message of letting go of our troubles, staying in the moment, and enjoying the dance. “And you sway in the moon the way you did when you were younger / When we told everybody all you need is now” is the contemporary equivalent of “Save A Prayer”’s “And you wanted to dance so I asked you to dance but fear is in your soul / Some people call it a one-night stand but we can call it paradise.”
“Runway Runaway,” about a young woman escaping from home to explore the world, is classic Rio-era Duran Duran with a musical nod to “Last Chance on the Stairway.” “Girl Panic!” with its trademark Duran Duran angular riffs and syncopated rhythm is almost too reminiscent of “Girls On Film.”
But it’s not all the same old song and dance. Whereas the band used to take us along on vacations to exotic locales like Sri Lanka, now that “third-world getaways” have become commonplace, the group takes us only as far as Germany for “Blame the Machines”, a toe-tapping hard electro track which compares a drive down the Autobahn to an out-of-control relationship (complete with Onstar-style feminine voice direction, which begs the question of who’s really driving).
One of my favorite tracks on the album, a definite departure from their previous work without sounding too trendy, is the funky, cowbell-heavy disco track “Safe (In the Heat of the Moment)”, featuring sexy Scissor Sister Ana Matronic rapping a la Soft Cell muse Cindy Ecstasy. “Being Followed” succeeds in capturing the classic Duran Duran sound without sounding too referential. Furthermore, it does something else that we expect from the band, but that also keeps well in our current socio-political and economic climate: It echoes our general anxieties about the world today.
Coming of age between the Blitzkrieg and the Cold War and AIDS Crises, Duran Duran was always skillful at chronicling our apprehensions, whether it was our nervousness about sex and relationships amid the AIDS epidemic (“Rio”, “Hungry Like The Wolf”, “A View to a Kill”) or world destruction during the Cold War (“Night Boat”, “Is There Something I Should Know”, “New Moon on Monday”). With the still-growing threat of nuclear war and terrorist acts, along with rigorous airport security checks and even google surveillance, “Being Followed”, with its sweeping, soundtrack-like instrumentation and infectious backbeat, manages to tackle both love and death by utilizing the conceit of a voyeuristic relationship to examine our current Orwellian state.
The ballads on the album are far less impressive. The lugubrious “Leave A Light On”, which fuses elementary keyboard play and dull guitar strumming on a pleading serenade about rekindling a broken relationship, is guaranteed to put out romantic fires faster than repeated infidelity.
Even worse is the haunting “The Man Who Stole A Leopard.” In what might best be described as the daughter of Balzac’s “A Passion in the Desert” or Hitchcock’s “Marnie”—I’ll call it “Snooki”—the song chronicles the story of a man so obsessed with a leopard in the wild that he catches it, cages it, and keeps it with him in his Jersey Shore apartment. Not only is its plot too far out and setting too tacky, however trendy, the track itself is derailed musically by the use of too many elements: Synthesized effects, vocoder-distorted backing by R&B singer Kelis, a phony news cast, and violins courtesy of indie musician Owen Pallett. If Ronson was attempting to add modern elements to the song, he definitely overdid it.
“Before The Rain” fares better, placing well-crafted lyrics atop samples from “The Chauffeur” and arresting marching band percussion. However, I’m still not convinced that a younger audience, raised on the likes of Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas, will endorse All You Need Is Now. As much as longtime fans might appreciate Ronson’s effort to return to the Rio sound—which he only does in part—I’m not sure that their children will feel similarly. I just don’t know if the band’s fusion of punk, disco (and now electro), and sophisticated, oft enigmatic lyrics about voyeurism and bestiality will appeal to mainstream audiences today, who are more used to simplistic pop, modern rock, and hip-hop.
The reason that Duran Duran (aka The Wedding Album) was a great comeback album was because of its post-‘80s relevance. It pleased both longtime Duranies and the new generation with an even blend of signature Duran Duran and contemporary musical styles from organic pop and alterna-rock to techno and trip-hop. The accompanying videos were well-situated on MTV among then current tastemakers like the Cranberries, Nirvana, Moby, and Portishead. All You Need Is Now lacks this level of immediacy. Red Carpet Massacre might have gone too far in the opposite direction, with a sound that was too young and hip, but it had a cohesiveness that their new release lacks. However, in an era of digital downloads, releasing a unified album might be entirely unnecessary.
Regardless, the band’s overarching message—that if the bombs will inevitably drop, we might as well go down in flames, dancing into the fire—is timeless. For as long as the world-weary continue to seek escape through music, they can always take shelter in Duran Duran.