September gives us a wealth of new material from two of the eighties finest. I have been a fan of both since their debut recordings (A-ha’s Hunting High and Low in 1985 and Duran Duran’s self-titled in 1981). Currently we have Cast in Steel and Paper Gods. Ordinarily I wouldn’t partake in this manner of ‘who is the best’ journalism, and it’s not intended as such, I remain a fan of both even if at times they do stretch my patience. So here goes. A few years ago a-ha announced their retirement and as sad as it was at the time, I respected their decision. The last thing I was expecting was.. a comeback! But it seems the allure of their fans and the 30th anniversary proved irresistible. Duran meanwhile have never split.
The first thing these two albums have in common is.. dreadful artwork. It’s a-ha’s worst since 1990’s East of the Sun, West of the Moon and because Duran were so lauded for the style guru that is Rio, their cover art is almost as eagerly anticipated as much as the accompanying album. Strangely this is hardly ever the case; think about it. How many Duran album covers are outstanding? Not many. Besides Rio, the inner sleeve to their first record, Ragged Tiger, Arena and Notorious are nice period pieces but beyond that only the Wedding Album shines through, though the last one grew on me a bit and Rio’s comedic cameo on the flip side of Medazzaland is worth a mention.
As for content A-ha follow on pretty much as they left off. It’s very much a record by numbers, pleasant in places but hardly groundbreaking. Their talent for word play is still bubbly – ‘Giving up the ghost, that’s what hurts the most’ and as always some shamefully borrowed references; think ‘The Sun Never Shone That Day’ as an obvious pastiche of the Garbage hit Stupid Girl, here it’s Meatloaf’s ‘objects in the rear view mirror appear closer than they seem’ – though the music is reliably Norse made pop. Just being flippant Door Ajar (which sounds like Savage Garden) would make a nice companion to Slender Frame and Morten’s Slanted Floor yet overall I’m afraid it’s a case of Lacklustre Them.
The next thing these albums have in common is they both kick off with title tracks. A-ha’s Cast in Steel is indeed one of its strongest pieces as is Duran’s Paper Gods, unusual at 7+ minutes in duration or duranation? Sorry, couldn’t resist. From there Duran’s Gods easily eclipse A-ha’s Valhalla. (Simon) Le Bon has never sounded stronger or lyrically superior and that in itself would suggest there is more to come – so DD15 at 60? A slightly worrying thought isn’t it. What’s more, the fine form that is DD14 is difficult to pitch in the Duran catalogue; it has the danceability of Big Thing with nods to the funkier moments on Notorious and even Red Carpet Massacre but has learned from all of them to become itself.
The first three are particular high points and while lead single Pressure Off has similarities to Estelle’s American Boy it still has enough youthful bounce to engage whoever is tuning in. What Are The Chances? You Kill Me With Silence and The Universe Alone are much better titles than the abysmally trashy Read My Lips and Can You Deal With It from 1990’s Liberty (founders Nick Rhodes and John Taylor both openly dismiss that album as their weakest). As I’ve written about previously (on All Music Guide), the turn of the decade was shaky ground for eighties bands though some have survived with Duran fl-fl-flexing their musical muscle to prove stronger than steel on this occasion.
My personal picks…
Minor Earth, Major Sky
Foot of the Mountain
The Wedding Album
All You Need is Now
East of the Sun, West of the Moon
Minor Earth, Major Sky
All You Need Is Now