Duran Duran have always been at their best when expectations are at their lowest. From their gate-crashing 1981 debut which sent shivers through the London New Romantic scene to 1986’s Notorious which introduced a sleek and sophisticated (and smaller) band that could write and perform exquisite music to the chagrin of critics, the band have always defied expectations. When left for dead commercially, they roared back with “Come Undone” and “Ordinary World” before spending a decade experimenting with their art and celebrating their roles as the elder-statesmen of pop trash with a grand reunion of the “Fab Five” in the early 2000s.
The 2004 reunion album Astronaut launched a new era for Duran Duran and 2011’s unabashed nostalgia party All You Need Is Now proved that their disco-infused synth-rock remains every bit as addictive and influential today as it was when they were riding yachts around the Caribbean. With Future Past, they deliver an album that perfectly balances the effervescent pop of hits like “Rio” and “Is There Something I Should Know?” with the more elegant art-pop found deep within albums like 1988’s Big Thing. It’s a mature record that doesn’t feel old. It’s a modern sounding collection of music that still manages to embrace the nostalgia that keeps them selling-out shows around the world. Stripping back the hyperbole, Future Past is one of the best Duran Duran albums since the 1980s.
Album opener “Invisible” strikes a darker mood than most lead-singles and has been throbbing on radio for a few months. It’s a bold introduction to Future Past and one that sets the tone for the rest of the album. The songs are leaner, the collaborations more meaningful (Graham Coxon sounds fully integrated into the band as a guitarist), and the production far less dense than what they found on 2015’s rather forgettable Paper Gods. From the artwork to the music, everything about Future Past feels like it has more purpose than Paper Gods which was stitched together by multiple producers and then managed to bury the best tracks as “exclusive” tracks not on the regular album.
After “Invisible”, the album explodes in beautiful colors with “All Of You” and “Give It All Up” and it is immediately apparent that this album is going to be a ride through all the best embodiments of Duran Duran. Swedish singer-songwriter Tove Lo brings a fresh voice to “Give It All Up” and the song is well-suited to reside on the radio next to Lady Gaga. Having established that the future is Duran Duran’s domain, the band shift gears and reward listeners with a healthy dose of nostalgia on “Anniversary”. It’s a fun pastiche of Duran Duran’s past (traces of “Union Of the Snake” and “Wild Boys” percolate throughout) but it might have worked better as a stand-alone single for their 40th anniversary.
Much was written about the band working with disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder on this album and while the single “Tonight United” didn’t feel completely slathered in the Moroder touch, hearing it next to his other contribution (“Beautiful Lies”) brings a jolt of energy to the album. The driving verses of “Beautiful Lies” are reminiscent of Moroder’s own “From Here To Eternity” with glimmering synths sparkling over every inch of the dance floor. It’s one of the highlights of the album and it puts “Tonight United” in a better light as they pair well together.
The sequencing is essential to Future Past with the surprises awaiting listeners on the second side. After the disco escapades with Moroder, the album takes a more serious turn with two of the most elegant tracks the band has recorded in decades with “Wing” and “Nothing Less”. For fans of the second half of Big Thing, “Nothing Less” will set your hearts alight while “Wing” finally delivers on the band’s search for a post-“Ordinary World” ballad that pulls on the heart strings. As always, I’m rarely sure what Simon LeBon is singing about but, when he strings the right phrases together, I am convinced of his genius.
The collaboration with Ivorian Doll, “Hammerhead”, remedies the band’s previous flirtations with hip-hop. The groovy guitar line hints at the band’s early 90s work but Ivorian Doll steps up to the mic and absolutely steals the track like Nicki Minaj once did on Kanye’s “Monster”. That is followed by the single “More Joy!” featuring Japanese rock band Chai which set some corners of the fan base into hysterics. It’s a ridiculous song to hate and when Roger Taylor’s drums explode early in the song, the band is back to their rock-n-roll meets synth-pop best. If the album leaves you wanting anything, it is more of that classic Roger Taylor thunder on a real drum kit. The electronic triggers are a little too neat for a band that tried to bridge punk and disco.
Perhaps surprisingly, the album’s two finest moments are not lush pop anthems for the dance floor. The title track finds the band in a reflective mood and the arrangement moves with the grace of the finest 80s ballads. It’s a beautiful moment for a band that so often resists embracing their rich history for fear of being labelled a nostalgia act. Album closer “Falling” leaves an even stronger impression thanks to Mike Garson’s graceful piano. Much like he did on David Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane”, Garson’s piano moves gently around the melody, adding emotional textures to an already gorgeous track.
After touring Paper Gods for several years, it would have been easy for the band to use their 40th anniversary as an excuse to tour without new music. At this point, they have more singles than a set list can hold anyway. However, the band’s greatest strength has always been a real desire to explore their art much like the artists which inspired them from David Bowie to Roxy Music. Sure, the hit singles and sold-out shows matter to the band but knowing they have added another worthy work of art to their collection probably matters more. With Future Past, the band have proven yet again that Duran Duran are essential to popular music.