Stephen Duffy & the Lilac Time: Keep Going

[14 June 2004]

By Will Harris

It’s been a long time coming, this US release ... but better late than never, eh, lads?”

In a 500-words-or-more review of any album by Stephen Duffy, it’s virtually inevitable that at least five of those words will be “former member of Duran Duran”, so let’s get them out of the way up front.

Yes, Stephen Duffy really was a member of Duran Duran, but he left the fold in ‘79, thinking they were too commercial. It wasn’t long before he tasted success himself with his single, “Kiss Me”, but that’s really about as commercial as Duffy’s gotten over the years. His work with the Lilac Time, which began in 1987, has never gone out its way to compete with the trends of the day. It’s folky, it’s peaceful, but it’s never screamed, “This is what’s hot!” It’s just the sort of music that Duffy likes to play, and, thanks to his passion, he plays it well.

Perhaps that’s why the Lilac Time has continued to produce such wonderful work throughout their career. And, yes, that comment should be taken to mean that Keep Going, the band’s seventh full-length album, is as fine as the albums that have preceded it.

Keep Going is, however, a bit more quiet and reflective than previous efforts. But perhaps that’s to be expected, given that it’s Duffy’s first album since September 11th, 2001.

That might sound like a handy excuse to explain away the melancholy feel of much of the album, and possibly a half-assed one, given that Duffy’s decidedly British. As it happens, he was actually in New York when the shit went down, having arrived in the city only the day before to promote the Lilac Time’s last album, Lilac6. In an interview with Amplifier Magazine not long after the event, he observed that “you come [to New York] with one idea of what you’re doing and what’s going on with your life, then you wake up, and your whole perspective on life has changed.”

Clearly, Duffy’s been thinking about life quite a lot since then.

In addition to a photograph which shows smoke from the World Trade Center billowing down a New York street, there are also photos taken from various locations around the world, some war-torn, some peaceful, some poverty-stricken, some exquisitely beautiful. Scattered amongst those images are shots of Duffy himself in various poses: holding a book on Roman Polanski, lost in thought whilst looking out a window, playing guitar onstage.

Seems like Duffy’s no longer sure about this world in which we live.

Take, for example, the lyrics to “Oh, God”.

And at the time, I was a young, young boy
Barely 42
I didn’t know only love could break your heart
I didn’t know what love could do
So when the phone went dead in the living room
In the sunshine over Gramercy

And when the tears fell and the sky went dark
And on the peace march, we wrote poetry

Give me something to believe in
Oh, God, something to believe in
Oh, God, give me something to believe in

The song “So Far Away” also refers to when Duffy was young, “back in the twentieth century”, observing that “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” and bidding farewell to icons of the past like Johnny Rotten, Brian Jones, Jackson Pollock, Chairman Mao, and Allen Ginsberg.

The album’s song titles alone clearly show a man adjusting to the changes in his world over the past few years: “Home”, “Nothing Can Last”, “I Wasn’t Scared of Flying”, “We Used to Be So”, “Keep Going”, “The Silence”, and “Already Gone”.

Musically, the songs are arranged quite sparsely compared to past albums. Acoustic and pedal steel guitar rule the day (“The Silence” really needs to be recorded by a country artist, if only to hook Duffy up with the royalties, because it’d surely be a number one), with mournful harmonica popping up on a few tracks for optimal emotional effect, particularly on the aforementioned “So Far Away”.

Stephen Duffy could have gone for a woe-is-me-my-world-has-changed, but, instead, the title says it all: he’s decided to just keep going. As a result, the discerning music fan now has 13 wonderful new songs to help them do the same.

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