While many of their ’80s pin-up peers have faded into dead-behind-the-eyes nostalgia bids, Duran Duran have inexplicably survived. For a band so steeped in dated Thatcherite nostalgia — yachting, skirt-chasing MTV superstars with perfectly fluffed hair and a taste for the exotic — it’s a wonder they even made it to 1990, but they’re nothing if not stubborn. Even as the glory days of “The Reflex” faded away, even as the screaming teens grew up and the critics grew tired, the Fab Five (or whoever’s replaced one of the Taylors over the years) remained ambitious. Sometimes, such scrappy (underneath all the makeup) determination resulted in undeniable greatness, like with 1993’s near-perfect “Ordinary World.”
Other times, most recently with 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, the experimentation tanked. A misguided attempt at club reinvention, the Massacre sessions saw guitarist Andy Taylor out and Justin Timberlake and Timbaland in, and resulted in a bloated, uneven album — the second-lowest selling in the band’s history. But once again, you’ve got to applaud Duran Duran for soldiering on; after such mediocre reception, the band reentered the studio with unshakable vigor and a mean fighting streak. With All You Need Is Now, they certainly came out swinging. The months leading up to the album’s digital release were filled with relentless campaigning — “Frankie Say Relax”-style T-shirts included — and enthusiastic bombast from its creators, all comparing it to that untouchable New Romantic legend, Rio. Mega producer Mark Ronson promised a return to roots, both throwback and reinvention — an album to remind us all why we loved Duran Duran back in the day.
It’s such confidence and pre-game boasting that makes “All You Need Is Now,” the kickoff single, released Dec. 8, such an odd, ill-fitting introduction. A squelching, schizophrenic number, the title track has an undeniably anthemic chorus that reaches “New Moon On Monday” highs; it’s just unfortunately buried between clumsy verses and Simon Le Bon’s lazy vocals, the same lack of momentum that sank the band post-Notorious.
Any review of All You Need Is Now would be gibberish to those unfamiliar with Duran Duran’s back catalog. Seeing as its own major players are all too keen to compare it to the band’s critical and commercial heyday, the album seems designed to be self-referential, and listeners can’t be blamed for expecting a mere rehash. Indeed, some of the tunes scan like New Wave karaoke. “Leave A Light On” is little more than a slightly beefed-up “Save a Prayer” (which, thanks to the original’s pedigree, still makes it a decent track), and “Blame the Machines,” with its painful opening lyric about “driving up the Autobahn,” is a misguided attempt at Numanesque techno-pop.
Thankfully, even the missteps are forgivable, simply because the band sound like they’re having one hell of a time. Le Bon, bassist John Taylor, keyboardist Nick Rhodes, and drummer Roger Taylor approached the album with a sense of giddy abandon, and superfan Ronson knows just when to step back and let them have their fun. “Being Followed” sees the Duranies finally hitting their stride; with a driving pulse that almost recalls Blondie’s “Atomic,” it’s a writhing take on voyeurism that has just the right amount of vintage appeal. Dance numbers like “Girl Panic!” and “Runway Runaway” (“Last Chance on the Stairway” meets “Lonely In Your Nightmare” meets 2010 indie earnestness) will slide in seamlessly with the old hits onstage. Putting heavy focus on John Taylor’s throbbing bass and Rhodes’s synth and sampling wizardry, such songs capture a strutting, in-your-face sexuality that proves these fiftysomethings are suave as ever. The metaphorically bestial “The Man Who Stole a Leopard” is “The Chauffeur” for a paranoid 21st century, all languid, slinky atmospherics and heady backing vocals provided by a surprisingly subdued Kelis.
It’s tempting to scoff that such guests as the aforementioned Kelis, Scissor Sister Ana Matronic (lending sassy street-chick “Rapture” to “Safe”), and Owen Pallett were tacked on in a bid for modern credibility; Ronson’s reputation as a record-dusting hipster might not help matters. But really, fault lies with the hyperbolic, self-referential Duran Duran for not giving themselves enough credit. Is it their strongest album since Rio? Sure, but for every nostalgic hook, there’s a reinvigorated charm that has the band at their freshest and most forward-thinking. As a group of former heartthrobs with something to prove, Duran Duran are both a product of its time and a band with its eye on the future — and they’ve finally managed to capture the titular sense of Now.