Several years back, I found an article online that compared the first three Duran Duran albums to the original Star Wars trilogy. It was a brilliant comparison; unfortunately, I never bookmarked the article and have since been unable to track it down. (Note to readers: ping
me on Twitter (@ckshortell) if you happen to find it.)
I think a similar comparison could be made with some of Duran’s post-reunion albums and the newest Star Wars trilogy. Actually, there’s probably a longer comparison that could compare the entire Star Wars canon with all 14 Duran albums and side projects. But for now, let’s stick to a simple, but apt, comparison.
The Force Awakens/All You Need is Now
The latest Star Wars trilogy launched with 2015’s The Force Awakens. Ten years after the end of the financially successful but critically panned prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, directed
by J.J. Abrams, was actually as much a “soft reboot” of the Star Wars franchise as it was a sequel trilogy. Hugely successful, the movie introduced new characters into the mythology while employing some heavy nostalgia. A bunch of plucky rebels must destroy a big bad planet killing machine! Or, in this instance, a star system killing machine! There were some changes, however. The hero was now a woman, played by the very charismatic Daisy Ridley; the bad guy, Kylo Ren, was still “in training” and not all powerful; and overall, the cast was much more diverse than the original.
Think back to nine years ago and All You Need is Now. That album came on the heels of 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, itself a massacre of circumstance (after Andy’s departure and the shelving of Reportage) and collaboration (with very un-Duranie collaborators like Timbaland joining the team.) (For the record: I mostly like RCM. But for the purposes of this comparison, I’m going with how most of the fanbase reacted to it. Which was badly. Very badly.)
Where did Duran go? To Mark Ronson, as much the “hot” producer as J.J. Abrams was the “hot” director for the Star Wars franchise. And what did Ronson do? Basically “reboot” Duran by helping them craft an album closer to their original, early 80’s sound than anything they had done since. The video about the creation of “Girl Panic” is a microcosm of this approach. “Play the drums like ‘Girls on Film’, Ronson told Roger. And the guitar, asked Dom? “Like Andy played it…on Girls on Film.” And on and on.
But All You Need is Now was more than just a retread of the early material—it genuinely worked, with catchy hooks and classic Duran choruses that had been lacking from many of the previous albums. One review asked, “Where have all these songs been hiding all these years?” Yes, there were clear nods to Rio. But the album also paid homage to other Duran eras. “Safe” channeled the funk from Notorious. The industrial sounding keyboard synth on the title track,
coupled with Dom’s guitars, brought to mind the more rock-oriented 90’s Duran sound, while the chorus was vintage Duran.
Like The Force Awakens, All You Need is Now did add some diversity to the mix. Simon shared the vocals more on AYNIN than on any previous album, with guest appearances by Kelis and Ana Matronic, as well as broadcaster Nina Hossain providing spoken word codas to two songs.
Overall, All You Need is Now succeeded for the same reasons that The Force Awakens did: it created something new, yet familiar, with a broad appeal to both core and new fans alike.
Paper Gods/The Last Jedi
There was a great deal of anticipation following the huge success of The Force Awakens. Specifically, the next movie was set to feature the return of Luke Skywalker, the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy. Mark Hamill reprised the role and was in the closing seconds of The Force Awakens, teasing fans and making the two-year gap between movies seem interminable. The Last Jedi also featured a different director—Rian Johnson—who took over the reins from
Unlike The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi proved to be a very divisive movie within the Star Wars fanbase. Luke Skywalker’s portrayal as a bitter, older Jedi who intentionally cut himself off from the Force came as a shock to fans, who wanted to see their childhood hero wield his lightsaber and confidently bring the First Order (the bad guys in the movie) to their knees. It didn’t help matters that Mark Hamill was quoted as questioning the script.
The b-plot of the movie—the flight of the Resistance from the First Order—also ends in disaster for our heroes, which didn’t sit well with fans, who thought that much of that plotline was pointless. And, spoiler alert: most of the Resistance dies. In fact, there are so few remaining rebels that they are all able to fit on the Millennium Falcon at the film’s conclusion.
The movie also seemed to gut the new trilogy of any sense of mystery by resolving (or simply negating) far too many plot points than a middle act typically would. Who, exactly, was Supreme Leader Snoke? Apparently, it didn’t matter as he was cut in two by Kylo Ren. Who were Rey’s parents? They were “nobodies” – a major subversion of the “Luke, I am your father” revelation from The Empire Strikes Back.
Meanwhile, on planet earth, Duran Duran followed up the fan friendly All You Need is Now with Paper Gods, an album seemingly as divisive among the fan base as the loathed Red Carpet Massacre. Again, I will freely acknowledge my bias: While I don’t love every single track on Paper Gods, on balance, I think it’s an amazing album, possibly their best since The Wedding Album. As usual, my opinion is likely in the minority among the Duran fan base.
Like The Last Jedi, Paper Gods subverts expectations. The title track is like nothing we’ve really heard from Duran before—it’s an epic opener, a cross between “New Religion” and “The Valley” in sheer scope. And therein lies the problem for some—why would you ever want to channel “The Valley” in any way, shape, or form? (For the record: I love “The Valley”. So I’m fine with it.)
“Last Night in the City” follows, and once again, we’ve shed the 80’s formula from AYNIN. Synths dominate; guitar is largely absent. The band seemed more concerned with a sound that would find chart success in 2015 vs. 1983.
Paper Gods, ultimately, feels like a bunch of different albums lumped onto one playlist. There’s the modern, dance oriented, sequel to Red Carpet Massacre that can be heard on tracks like, “Last Night In the City,” “Danceophobia,” “Face for Today,” and “Change the Skyline.” Then there are darker, more experimental cuts like the title track and “You Kill Me With Silence.” There’s more funk on this album than anything since Notorious, as found on “Butterfly Girl”, “Pressure Off,” “Only in Dreams,” and even “The Universe Alone.” And then there are songs that refuse to fit in any box: the dreamy “What Are the Chances,” in the classic tradition of Duran ballads; the 70’s sounding “Sunset Garage,” which sounds like nothing heard before on any previous Duran album. Even “Face for Today”—which I lumped in with the “modern dance” set of tracks—features as classic a Duran chorus as you will ever hear, that could hav been ripped from 1983’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger sessions.
Paper Gods, like The Last Jedi, dared to be different; it dared to cover new (and old) ground. And both caused their respective fan bases some consternation, as they seemingly failed to live up to the expectations set by the preceding work.
DD15 / Rise of Skywalker
Which brings us to the present. Expectations are high across both the Duran and Star Wars fandoms. In a little over a month, the new Star Wars trilogy concludes with the highly anticipated Rise of Skywalker. The trailer has offered some tantalizing clues, but overall, the plot continues to be shrouded in mystery.
Likewise, the next Duran Duran album is slated for release…possibly in the spring of next year? We all know not to give too much credence to when the band claims its new album will be out. But everything seems lined up for a new album and tour to (finally!) commemorate the 40th anniversary of the band. We’ve gotten a few details on it—Simon claimed recently that it’s an album that will “make you dance” like “Rio”—but we’ve heard similar claims about previous albums that didn’t necessarily turn out true.
What is true is that both the next Star Wars movie and Duran Duran album are highly anticipated by their fans, and many are hoping for change of direction. Will fans be happy with the finished product? Or after so many hears, is it an impossible task that we’ve set up these artists to accomplish?
Stay tuned…and May the (Duran) Force Be With You