Stephen Duffy & the Lilac Time: Keep Going

Stephen Duffy & the Lilac Time
Keep Going

Poor ol’ Stephen Duffy. In the late ’70s, he resigned as lead singer of an art-rock band called Duran Duran because — ironically — he didn’t think their sound was commercial. His early ’90s outfit, the Lilac Time, specialized in folksy, pastoral pop, missing the zeitgeist (and, hence, the charts) by a full decade. He’s had to make ends meet by writing with Barenaked Ladies. Most unfortunately, he spent the entire ’80s with the nickname “Tin Tin”.

He’s survived all of that, though, even getting the Lilac Time back together in the late ’90s and taking care of some unfinished business with Nick Rhodes as the Devils on the excellent retro-noir Dark Circles album a couple years ago. Two-plus decades on the artistic high road have taken their toll, however, and Keep Going is all the better for it. Now, Duffy can add “Almost-Classic Contemporary Masterpiece” to his list of accomplishments.

The sleeve of Keep Going contains 9/11-related pictures, suggesting a topical, politically-driven set. On the contrary, the songs are intensely personal. Though the Lilac Time (essentially a couple of Duffy’s siblings, backing vocalist Claire Worrall, and a drummer) are credited, Duffy wrote all the songs and plays almost all the instruments, and it’s definitely his heart he’s wearing on his sleeve throughout the album’s dozen songs.

Throughout, relationships are examined with painful frankness. Witness “Nothing Can Last”: “If you are the answer / Then love is like cancer / It’s killing me faster than time”. With Duffy into his 40s, the passage of time and the mixed feelings it brings is a major theme as well. “So Far Away” is the best example, with Duffy remembering “When I was a young man / Back in the twentieth century” before concluding, “Nostalgia isn’t what it was / Farewell, then, Johnny Rotten”. Like much of Keep Going, especially the second half, “So Far Away” sounds like a well-worn, much-loved song that was written decades ago, but it’s a classic that Duffy’s only just created. The acoustic guitars, pedal steel, and harmonica add to this timeless effect. In fact, Keep Going is so cathartically heartbreaking that one has to think how much of a shame it is that Johnny Cash didn’t get to cover any of these songs.

“The Silence” is perhaps the album’s highlight, a beautiful country-western ballad about a burned-out relationship where it was only “…the fear of fear / That made a habit of loving”. If Duffy’s label would only promote it to country radio, it would be a huge hit. That’s not an insult, either; the song fits right in with the “new traditional” trend that’s currently taking hold in Nashville.

Although Duffy’s lyrics on Keep Going are introspective and often sad, the album is by no means a downer. In fact, it features some of the best pure pop and warmest harmonies in recent memory. “Bank Holiday Monday” recalls the Smiths or the Jazz Butcher’s more reflective work, while the soulful title track expresses Duffy’s ultimate sense of hope. Duffy’s voice, a rich croon that falls somewhere between Blur’s Damon Albarn and David Bowie, is in fine form.

If you manage to get outside on a warm, breezy late afternoon this summer, sit down someplace comfortable with someone (or some memories) you love and take in this album, well, you could’ve done much, much worse.