Thank goodness for the double wonders of Stephen Duffy's midlife crisis and his creative procrastination. Much has happened since 1999 and the critically acclaimed Lilac Time release Looking for a Day in the Night. For one thing, the very talented Mr. Duffy turned 40, prompting a decision to stop making records and instead start traveling around on buses (always a great way to see the world). Secondly, a British tabloid declared his life an utter failure (no, dear readers, he was not the Pete Best of the 1980s). However, this article was enough to pique the interest of two publishers keen on having Mr. Duffy tell his own side of the story via a memoir. So off he went, typing to capture those first 40 years. But all work and no play make Stephen a dull boy. So in the spirit of creative procrastination, he turned to his other outlet. For what he termed "light relief", Mr. Duffy managed to create the new music that has become lilac6.
On the new one, the often-wistful Mr. Duffy has created a musical homage to growing older, loss, renewal and all the accompanying feelings that beset one in modern middle age. Not exactly light relief, but in the hands of Mr. Duffy, his brother Nick and Claire Worrall, the Lilac Time makes it work. Honestly, the Lilac Time probably offers Stephen Duffy his best chance for long overdue recognition. This wry examination of life and love and growing older might be some of his best work yet. While he may be losing his youth, he is gaining in confidence. His voice has never sounded better, and these soft pastoral folk-rock tunes flow easy on the ears.
How does an American audience (nay, most of the world) not know the talented Stephen Duffy? Let me count the ways. He is not widely known here as the soul-weary solo artist Duffy, and his days long ago as the leader of TinTin are mostly just distant rumblings of U.K. synth-pop (as is his status as a pre-fame early member of Duran Duran). More recently, he escapes notice as a great songwriter of many Barenaked Ladies songs (co-written with Steven Page), and as the driving creative force behind his mellow folk-rock entity the Lilac Time (our immediate focus here). In spite of his many talents, his obscurity remains for the most part unthreatened.
While Duffy had achieved a transatlantic hit with 1982's "Kiss Me", his most steady success has come as leader of the Lilac Time, who recorded four albums from 1987 through 1991. The first three of these: The Lilac Time, Paradise Circus and & Love for All are difficult to locate and make appearances now and again as pricey online auction items. Thankfully, the recently released Compendium: The Fontana Trinity solves some of that problem (although it's only available as an import). This two-CD compilation offers one disc that culls the best off those first three releases and a second disc with various odds and sods (alternate versions, rare tracks, etc.).
After 1991's Astronauts, Duffy decided to let the Lilac Time come to an end, while he pursued a solo career (and two more albums) that used songs to explore his anger with the past and most specifically the music business. However, the quieter side of Stephen Duffy still needed an outlet. In 1999, Stephen resurrected the Lilac Time's pastoral folk-pop sounds on a new album, and the results were phenomenal: great infectious soft pop with melancholic bittersweet lyrics.
Now, two years and a midlife crisis later, the Lilac Time is back with another winner, this time a little more heavy on the weepy pedal steel accompaniment and Claire Worrall harmonies, but certainly one worth many a repeated listen. Duffy now seems more comfortable than ever with his neuroses, and captures his life crises in song with a seeming ease that belies the skill behind it. His voice is in great form, and again, this is one that grabs you from the first listen and then gets better the more you hear it.
The song "Come Home Everyone" is about Stephen Duffy's last time seeing his father, but it is perhaps the most eerily apropos song ever written to capture the feelings of loss to families following the events of September 11th. Try to find a better depiction than these words offer: "Come home daddy, come home mommy / Come home everyone who made it home / when I was on your knee, I thought you would always be / somewhere for me". This song poignantly hits upon the feelings of not knowing how to repair such losses, what to do.
The father is also mentioned in "Foglights", a curiously haunting song about mental trials and tribulations. Duffy is back in familiar metaphorical form: "Please turn on your foglights / this is one hell of a life / you've lost your living daylights somewhere in the night / And sanity walks slowly / and hell will always hold me / and how come no one told me /the wood from the trees / You learn to walk, you learn to talk, you learn to live again / all breakdowns are the same / too useless to explain / don't explain".
The new Stephen Duffy is self-aware in exciting ways. While he's never been afraid to take on the autobiographical aspect in his songwriting, he seems to have reached new plateaus of resolution and acceptance from the evidence provided here. Duffy can take a pleasant tune and manage to have it cover despair and loneliness and loss without it being obvious. Perhaps my favorite words here are those in one of his more autobiographical lyrics "My Forest Brown", where he talks about his beautiful despair and how he loves to share it (that's what being a pop songwriter is, right?). The lyrics confess: "Here's another song about the things I've done wrong / they'll hurt you more, that's what my songs are for / but tonight I will come crashing down / my faith in everyone will drown / and I know you won't be around to see / my forest brown".
It might have something to do with the memoirs, but in "Wasted" he chides himself further as someone always afraid to face realizations: "I wasted my youth / worrying I was wasting away / waiting for someone to say you're #1 / under the carpet / where most of my life was lived in darkness / waiting for me to start to work it out / You are trying to live for tomorrow / trying to block out the sorrow / You are trying to hold back the sunlight, drawing the curtain at life". The "you ares" of the refrain are a musical nod back to a song called "You Are" from his solo days.
But all is not dark and dreary here. You get two interesting takes on love songs with "Jeans + Summer" and "I Want to Be Your Man." The wry "Entourage" (co-written with Barenaked Ladies' Steven Page) is a sort of jaunty tongue-deeply-in-cheek look at fame and its shallow rewards. The very catchy "This Morning" is full of lovely small town images and conveys these thoughts: "If you think life's passing you by /so do I / so do I / but you know you can live with your dreams before you die." And no Lilac Time album is complete without a reference to astronauts: this time around you get "The Last Man on the Moon", a song about loneliness that allows Stephen Duffy the chance to play banjo.
The album also includes two instrumental tracks by Nick Duffy, Stephen's talented illustrator/older brother. "Jupe Lounge" almost sounds like some wistful Russian ballad in parts, while "June's Buffalo" builds upon itself as a sort of upbeat calliope anthem with vocal backing, closing out the CD in intriguing party fashion. "Dance Out of the Shadows", the CD's first cut, is a wonderful paean to actively challenging one's midlife crisis ("Middle age it's all the rage and it's my lifestyle option"). Duffy reminds us again how attitudes can be antidotes to all that ails you: "So let it out and let me in / dance out of the shadows / Rock n' roll, folk, blues and soul / people say they're over / but when you dance, their true romance / is always at your shoulder".
In a world where so much goes unexplored, lilac6 allows you to sit in on Mr. Duffy's self-analysis in an always entertaining way (and it's a lot cheaper than therapy sessions too). There is a likeable ambience to every one of these 12 tracks that makes you want even more each time you go through them. Fans of Duffy and the Lilac Time will need to add this one to their collections. If you aren't already a fan, this softly reflective compendium of "pedal steel and harmonies" might be a real nice place to start.