Stephen Duffy: Duffy

John Bergstrom

Why isn't this man famous? Re-issued Britpop-era gem from Robbie Williams' new writing partner.

Stephen Duffy


Label: BMG
US Release Date: Available as import
UK Release Date: 2005-11-14
Amazon affiliate

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.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

I Went on a Jewel Bender in Quarantine. This Is My Report.

It's 2020 and everything sucks right now, so let's all fucking chill and listen to Jewel.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.