Were there any justice, then The Lilac Time would be a national treasure, their fusion of English pastoral folk, pop and country acclaimed as as quintessentially a distinctive part of the nation’s musical heritage as The Kinks, Nick Drake, The Beatles and The Stones. As it is, they are something of a cult, beloved by their admirers, but little known beyond the musical circle in which they move. If the wider world knows Stephen Duffy’s name, it’s more likely to be from his brief moment of Kiss Me chart glory as Tintin or, for those who read album credits, the co-writer and co-producer of Robbie Williams’ Intensive Care album and his No 1 single Radio. Trivia buffs may also be aware that he was in an early version of Duran Duran. But, ask them if they’ve ever heard Return To Yesterday, American Eyes or The Laundry and they’ll probably give you a vacant stare.
However, those of us who have found their secret garden will know what heady blooms therein grow. And what a bouquet can be found in No Sad Songs, their ninth album. Now, with Stephen’s marriage to keyboard and strings player Claire Worrall, the band are a complete set of Duffys, completed by brother Nick on banjo, bouzouki and accordion and Melvin Duffy, no relation, on pedal steel.
Predominantly recorded in the couple’s new home of Cornwall, the mood is very much informed by the joys of romance and wedded bliss, one song’s called The Wedding Song, a liltingly lovely tumbling affair rippled with Melvin’s steel and the dreamy psych-folk She Writes A Symphony even opens with the line “Hey let’s start a family.”
Announcing its uplifting, buoyant vision of life, it opens with the celebratory The First Song Of Spring, a gorgeous love song swathed in swirling string lines, banjo kisses and a metronomic drum while the lyrics tale of lilies and poetry. Indeed, it’s very much a mesmerising mood album rather than a collection of poppy melodies to which you tap your feet or whistle along to, though that’s not to say they aren’t every bit as sumptuous as past gems. Its dreamlike ambience is particularly narcotic on the gently waltzing No Sad Songs, with its almost fireplace and tinsel festive-feel chorus of ‘No sad songs need we sing. All I want is what you bring me. Christmas Eve as a child”, and, another touch of hazed desert-psychedelia, The Dream That Awoke Me, a love song inspired by a California earthquake.
There’s a steel drums carnival air to the shuffling Babylon Revisited, the album’s single not to social comment with its references to tax avoiding big businesses, the false prophets of ‘the new whatever’ and name checks for Eleanor of Aquitaine and Mervyn King, but even here there’s a defiant ‘we won’t fade away’ optimism complete with la la las and even a yahoo from Claire.
Elsewhere, the summery, steel-brushed Prussian Blue is a decidedly impressionist number that sports phrases like ‘diaphanous friendships’, ‘vituperative memories’ and ‘lilac emperor’ alongside references to Rigby & Peller bras and “a film of air where each frame is hand-tinted.” It’s as if Brian Wilson has reconceived Smile as an English idyll. Then, introduced with the sound of the engine running, there’s The Western Greyhound, a roadtrip ‘down the Atlantic Highway’, undulating percussion, steel and keys underpinning another love drenched lyric about making “a beached in the desert of our dreams.”
The album closes in more experimental mode, first with Rag, Tag & Bobtail (the Watch With Mother title, a nod to an English age of childhood innocence), an exotic instrumental by Nick that weaves Eastern and Occidental threads into his folksy fabric, and finally A Cat On The Long Wave with its otherworldly minimalism, dripping strings and icy keyboard notes “bleeding into the slow air’ (its atmosphere putting me in mind of De Quincy’s Confessions of An English Opium-Eater) as, pretty much summing the band and album’s ethos, Stephen sings how “life’s a dream to be lived.” Given its April release, I can think of no more parting line that to quote TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, with it “ breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” Go gather.
Review by: Mike Davies
No Sad Songs is out now via Tapete Records
Order via Amazon