Over his 25-year career, the music biz has not been kind to Stephen Duffy. Whether recording as Tin Tin, the Lilac Time, with Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes as the Devils, or under his own name, his efforts have usually met with the same commercial indifference. He’s one of England’s best singer/songwriters, but he’s been relegated to the same just-can’t-get-a-break cache as the Go-Betweens, Pat Fish, and Nick Lowe. So it’s encouraging to see this classy re-issue of one of his finest achievements, complete with seven bonus tracks and a new, less dated cover photo that matches the timeless music within.
If you’re a fan of intelligent, impeccably-crafted, classic-style guitar-pop and you’re not familiar with Duffy, here’s your assignment: Spend a day with Duffy and see if it doesn’t immediately have you trolling through Amazon, wondering what else you’ve been missing.
Originally released in 1995, Duffy finds its namesake between Lilac Time incarnations, trading most of the pastoral, folksy inclinations of that band for a straightforward, electric guitar-driven approach. Handling all the guitars himself (and establishing himself as a first-rate player in the process) and adding the rhythm section from another unjustly overlooked pop/rock act, Velvet Crush, Duffy deftly combines classic British influences (the Beatles, The Smiths) with worthy American ones (R.E.M., Matthew Sweet).
Appearing in the Britpop fray, Duffy achieves almost all the artistic highs of that movement without the press-baiting egomania, bravado, and general snottiness that dogged it. Maybe that lack of an “angle” is why it wasn’t the huge British hit it should’ve been.
It’s certainly not a lack of tunes. Glammed-up stompers like “London Girls” and “The Kids in Every Corner” bring the attitude but never sound forced. Hey, Duffy’s a vet; he knows he’s a songwriter and not an icon, and he doesn’t have to sound like John Lennon to give his songs the feel of Lennon’s. In an aural wink, however, “Child is Waiting” brilliantly sneaks in a bit of the “Dear Prudence” bassline. A couple of two-steps are the closest Duffy gets to Lilac Time territory. Both “She Freak” and “Rachel” lace their acoustic guitars with Rickenbacker ripples, and both are winning.
Duffy‘s two highlights are excellent, breath-of-life pop songs. On “Mr. 20th Century Man”, Duffy kisses off the ‘80s and coyly acknowledges the upside of cult status: “Haven’t I been lucky / I’ve been allowed to sing / I fooled them when they bought me / I didn’t sell a thing”. Even better is the self-descriptive “Sugar High”, with a wonderful, weak-kneed lead riff that could’ve come straight off Help!. Duffy extols the “Ecstasy that only love and music bring”, doing his part by wrapping the lyric in soaring melody and chiming guitars.
Lyrically, Duffy, like Ray Davies, Paul Weller, and Damon Albarn, captures the state of working class England with equal parts wit and insight. “London Girls” is self-explanatory; “Starfit” cuts the NME Flavor-of-the-Month types down to size, while “Needle Mythology” offers fresh perspective on the whole smack thing: “You’re just like Jesus / You die and rise again”, says Duffy of his addict friend, against an anxious Mellotron chorus that predates “Paranoid Android” by two years. As a vocalist, he never oversells his songs, letting his soft, smoothly nasal voice do its thing and the lyrics speak for themselves (Go-Bewteens fans can imagine a slightly more detached Grant McLennan).
Only a few social commentary slowies threaten to drag Duffy down. But it’s even easier to ignore them given the seven bonus tracks appended to this reissue. From the Morrissey-like “Waitress’ Story” to the sterling, previously-unreleased pop gem “Jane” (who “isn’t giving me a chance to be shameful”—even this guy’s outtakes are sharp), they only enhance what’s already an outstanding album.
These days, while continuing to release excellent Lilac Time material, Stephen Duffy pays his bills by writing with Barenaked Ladies and Robbie Williams. As you listen to Duffy, maybe that can temper your incredulity that it never achieved the status of Definitely Maybe and Parklife.