Every once in a while, an artist that seemed to have faded quietly into permanent obscurity can summon up a late career renaissance that’s as surprising as it is welcome. It happened last year with Roddy Frame’s excellent Seven Dials album; now it’s the turn of fellow literate 1980s singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy to show that there’s life in the old dog yet.
Like Frame with Aztec Camera, Duffy made his name as the front man for a group that was a solo venture in all but name. A founder member of Duran Duran in his late teens, Duffy soon decided the music he wanted to make lay in a different direction to his Brummie band mates and after a restless few years, he emerged in 1987 with The Lilac Time, whose brand of gentle, wistful folk rock couldn’t have been less fashionable at the height of the MTV decade. It was clearly a sound that suited Duffy just fine however; since then, he’s by and large stuck to the same template, quietly releasing a dozen or so albums either as part of a band or in his own name (occasionally with the moniker ‘Tin Tin’ inserted). But after eight years of silence since 2007’s Runout Groove, one could be forgiven for thinking The Lilac Time’s clock had finally stopped.
No Sad Songs is therefore a return that’s as unexpected as it is quietly triumphant. Duffy has always had a wonderfully relaxed way with a tune coupled with a warm, dreamy atmospheric and both strengths are fully present and correct on this consistently strong record.
The signs were there when the title track emerged as a single at the turn of the year. An elegiac Americana-tinged delight, its mournful pedal steel and Duffy’s rich, tender baritone combined to make this the best Richard Hawley song south of Sheffield. Now 100% a family affair, No Sad Songs was recorded in Cornwall by Stephen, wife Claire and brother Nick. Although the title may suggest a more upbeat vibe, the mood here is still mostly world-weary and nostalgic, although tinged with hope.
The album begins with The First Song of Spring, its epic, stately strings offset by wisps of fluttering banjo as Duffy and his spouse harmonise blissfully on the refrain “have I told you that I love you?” It’s a fine opener, and we don’t have to wait long for another gem; The Wedding Song is a lovely, lilting country-tinged ballad that would fit seamlessly onto a late period Neil Young record like Harvest Moon or Silver and Gold.
The jaunty bossa nova of Babylon Revisited is a slight misstep, but Duffys’ soon back on form with the aforementioned title track and the beautifully languid Prussian Blue. No Sad Songs closes with two contrasting but equally arresting compositions – the pastoral folk instrumental Rag Tag and Bobtail, complete with Vashti Bunyan-style recorders, and A Cat On The Long Wave, a ghostly waltz that fades out into waves of distorted noise.
Throughout, Duffy’s lyrics remain as idiosyncratic as ever, referencing everyone from Mervyn King to Eleanor of Aquitaine, although lines like “diaphanous friendship in transparent splendour” step close to overstepping the pretentiousness boundary. Yet even with his occasional indulgences, No Sad Songs is an impressive comeback. One can only hope that The Lilac Time’s latest bloom is not to be their last.