For all its brightness and colors and over-the-top imagery, the 1980s were a hard decade to age out of. The pop culture stars of that glorious decade were so omnipresent in that boom of media that it was probably for all of them to figure out what to do next. One act that rolled with the punches of the changing times rather well is Duran Duran, the pretty-boy pop idols who thrived in the luxurious fantasy of the 80s. Though the hysteria from “Hungry Like the Wolf” faded, the Fab Five kept going by expanding their synth pop sound into funk, adult contemporary, industrial rock and even R&B into the 90s and 2000s. Even when they’ve dipped back into the sound of their 80s heyday, Duran Duran still find a way to try something new 40 years after their debut.
Future Past is the band’s 15th album and is the most daring thing they’ve done since 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre, their muddled collaboration with Timbaland. There are plenty more collaborators on Future Past, including retro producer (and Duran superfan) Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Adele), father of disco Giorgio Morder (Donna Summer, Sparks) and DJ Erol Alkan (The Killers). Despite the number of cooks in the kitchen, there’s a uniform sound layered on the album’s 12 tracks. In fact, the band takes the upbeat glow from their Rio-era and refocuses it into something darker, even bordering on gothic. “Give It All Up,” “Beautiful Lies” and the title track feature some of the most atmospheric synth lines Nick Rhodes ever afforded to the band. Bassist John Taylor remains the band’s secret weapon, giving deep funk backing to lead single “Invisible,” “Tonight United” and “Hammerhead.” But the strongest presence on the record is still frontman Simon Le Bon, whose youthful yelp has aged nicely into the same haunting allure of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry (helped by the exceptional mixing on the album). He’s never sounded more towering than on the ecstasy of “Anniversary” or the ghostly mood of “Wing.”
But if that mood change sours lifelong missing the shores of “Rio,” the upbeat bounce of classic Duran is peppered throughout the album. In fact, other 80s pop stars can be heard on Future Past: “Invisible” could easily be a cover of Depeche Mode’s “People Are People” while “Anniversary” sounds like classic Duran covering Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “Relax.” Duran has been a four-piece band since original guitarist Andy Taylor ditched on the sessions for Red Carpet Massacre. However, Future Past doesn’t leave much room for drummer Roger Taylor given the focus on electronics. The constant pulsing percussion on most of the tracks make Future Past sound like a lost New Order record from the 80s, which is enjoyable enough but muddles the mixing of styles Duran have done so well in the past (see their 1993 self-titled album). The back end of Future Past is a bit of a mess, from the dark tango of “Nothing Less” being flattened by the gloomy production to the weird pep of “More Joy!” with Japanese rock band CHAI. It would be almost enjoyably goofy if its childish sound didn’t clash with the darker vibe of the record (let alone the age of Duran Duran being a couple decades more than their collaborators).
It may not have the tone longtime fans want, but Future Past shows that Duran Duran aren’t leaning on their glory days. Backed by the sonic richness heard in their post-2010 output, the band are able to dig deeper into a new mood and shake-off any staleness to their winning pop formula. Future Past may even be a new step in Duran Duran’s path to reestablishing themselves as synth pop elder statesmen. Their lyrics may never go beyond flashy escapism, but at least their music can still go in different directions. Other artists from the 80s may have made leaps and bounds from the decade, but Duran have slyly taken their time gliding into each new era. Hell, maybe they took the sailboat from the “Rio” video and just sailed into each new sunrise with ease.