For over a year, Duran Duran and producer Mark Ronson have compared the recording of the music that is about to hit iTunes as All You Need Is Now to the band’s early ’80s output. Whether they’ve done the job really depends upon how you interpret all that pre-game prattle. But more on that in a moment, because when a band’s been around for more than 30 years, a little perspective can go a very long way.
The members of Duran Duran have so much tonsorial-based ozone depletion in their collective histories, it may seem odd to compare their career trajectory to that of a gritty, woozy prize fighter. But the truth is, Duran Duran have had their asses handed to them time and again by critics and an often disinterested public when it comes to their recorded works since the first few albums. Every now and again an “Ordinary World” pops up and makes everyone take notice, but for the most part Duran Duran has fought the battle for contemporary relevancy to exponentially smaller crowds.
It’s to their great credit that Duran Duran haven’t just taken their lumps and simply allowed themselves to become a greatest hits touring act, with maybe a stretch run in Vegas or Reno or some other place where “Hungry Like the Wolf” could be used to cross-market a casino buffet. They’ve certainly got the back catalogue to support the notion, and their concerts often reflect the struggle between knowing the greatest hits is what got them to where they are and new songs half the crowd doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of.
Now, Duran Duran have returned looking way better than they’ve got any right to, and they’re still as stubborn as ever, still refusing to sit down and shut up and stop making new music. And they’ve still got a nasty left hook, apparently, and a dancer’s gait a young Muhammad Ali would have been proud of. But first, the single, which arrives nearly two weeks before the album which bears its name on December 8: “All You Need Is Now” is an odd choice for an introductory, or at least it seems that way during the plodding verse, which comes on like a pair of mid-period Duran singles that sunk like a stone, “Violence of Summer (Love’s Taking Over)” and “Out of My Mind”. But the chorus, for the first time in a thousand albums, really does feel like that Duran Duran from days of yore, hints of “New Moon on Monday” buried deep within its DNA.
“Blame the Machines” does recall the ’80s, but not Duran Duran’s ’80s. It’s 21st century electro-pop, but with little debt to the band’s own history. It’s a forgivable misstep, primarily because it’s such good fun. And perhaps that’s where Ronson’s really earned his pay (or points or whatever.) Though it certainly can’t have hurt that he’s gotten Messrs. Le Bon, Rhodes, Taylor and Taylor to dig their old timey instruments from the backs of their impossibly deep closets, but the real magic the producer and self-avowed superfan has wrought is not the sound of the old Duran Duran, but rather the spirit.
For the first time in a very long time, Duran Duran sounds like they’re having fun, like they remember what it means to actually be Duran Duran. It certainly wasn’t this apparent on Astronaut, the 2004 “reunion” album recorded with Fab Five guitarist Andy Taylor temporarily returning to the fold alongside John (bass) and Roger (drums) Taylor, who if you’ve misplaced your copies of Star Hits aren’t actually related. It wasn’t there in 2007, when the quartet teamed up with Timbaland and Justin Timberlake on the underrated but ultimately misguided Red Carpet Massacre. But it’s here, and maybe all you really do need is now.
Make no mistake, the gentlemen involved in the making of All You Need Is Now do their level best to remind you of Duran Duran’s earliest works: “The Man Who Stole a Leopard”, a grandiose and stunning number which features guest vocals by a reserved, milkshake-free Kelis evokes elements of “The Chauffeur”, “Tel Aviv” and the original single version of “My Own Way”, while “Leave a Light On” recalls “Save a Prayer” if for no other reason than it’s the first time in three decades the band has put together a ballad nearly as good. “Runway Runaway” feels a bit like “Last Chance on the Stairway” by way of an early Charlatans album cut, and if you’ve no idea what any of these references mean, the months of often repetitive hyperbole from Ronson and the members of Duran Duran probably didn’t mean anything to you anyway.
Kelis isn’t the only guest star pitching in; Ana Matronic (Scissor Sisters) comes on all Debbie Harry with a downtown white girl rap on the disco-funk of “Safe”, and Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy) throws some indie cred into the mix with string arrangements. But even with all the party inclusive bells and whistles, and even with Ronson (and possibly keyboardist Nick Rhodes) getting cute with with samples and special whiz-bang effects, none of it sounds forced or out of place. It’s also a relief to find that most of the tracks here — especially throbbing dance numbers like “Girl Panic!” — are… err… Taylor-made for the stage. They’ll fit comfortably alongside those golden oldies and probably won’t lead to too many exasperated bathroom breaks from the peripheral fans who only came to hear “The Reflex” or “that one that goes doo-doo-doo-doo.”
All You Need Is Now isn’t Son of Rio, but it’s the best album Duran Duran has released since then, a collection that manages what their best material always has, blending art with grand gestures and popcraft. It’s nine songs full of the promise and thrill of 1981-83. But even more than Ronson and Duran Duran have let on, it’s also an album clearly in debt to the future, a sleek and sexy future where a guy in his early 50’s “driving up the Autobahn” is still the same superhero who wrestled hot chicks in a Sri Lankan swamp all those years ago. This is the sound of time stood still, of a feeling of reckless and sophisticated abandon launched decades forward without skipping a beat.