To my recollection, there were 3 significant events in my life in the otherwise moribund spring of 1988: 1) I got into Creation Records; 2) I graduated from the likes of Rolling Stone and Spin to the NME and Melody Maker thanks to a big stack of back issues of both in the record shop I was working in; and 3) the first Lilac Time album came out.
I link those 3 things up in my head for various reasons, the most important of which is that The Lilac Time were the first band that I followed contemporaneously via the British music press. While the band would indeed end up on Creation Records for a brief spell, in 1988 they seemed more of a style that was not too dissimilar to the best stuff on that label; no shame then in putting tracks from The Jasmine Minks next to a cut from The Lilac Time (1988) on a mix-tape for the car stereo, you know?
In 1989, when I was working at another record store, Paradise Circus came out and the band broadened their sound quite a bit. That broadening was even more apparent on the next year's Andy Partridge-produced long-player. Each one of those first 3 records is unique and somehow similar. And, naturally, there's always been a bit of sweet nostalgia for me when I think of the band for I so closely associate them and their first 3 records with that great era in my youth when I worked at a string of 3 record stores in a college town.
But, enough about me. It's time to share the news that The Lilac Time are back and their new album, No Sad Songs, will be out next week on Tapete Records.
Again a 3-piece -- Stephen Duffy, Nick Duffy, and Stephen's wife Claire -- the band sound invigorated here and in full command of their gentle method of creating pop magic.
"We wont' fade away" goes the soft refrain of the jaunty "Babylon Revisited" and one breathes a sigh of relief and thinks: "Thank God for that." I say that 'cause The Lilac Time were one of those bands that even a devoted fan such as myself may have taken for granted. And if I may have missed a bit when following their more recent albums, I can say that I never got bored with their earlier output. It was always held in my heart in a special place next to the first Aztec Camerca record, or the best albums from The Go-Betweens.
No Sad Songs, I am very happy to report, belongs in that same special place in my heart and yours. These are perfectly constructed mini-symphonies of blissful indie pop.
Of course there's the enormously upbeat "The First Song of Spring", all drum-rolls and lines like "You make everything golden" to make a listener feel at home again. Then there's the expertly titled "She Writes a Symphony" which seems the natural, adult progression from "Return to Yesterday", all sinewy lines and hints of banjo. When Duffy sings "We'll live where the blossoms bloom" you can feel yourself go a bit weak in the knees. For with the possible exception of the young Roddy Frame or the peak Morrissey, no one writes like this. "She Writes a Symphony" might be a love song but the odd, little near-Echo and Bunnymen rhythmic device underneath the lyrics adds a hint of something else here, something dark but hopeful. Really, this is one of the masterpieces on this record and I say that with no hesitation.
Then take for instance the forceful "The Dream That Woke Me" which echoes "Black Velvet" from the first record. Though this time one must admit, the bridge here is so strong that this cut seems like a huge leap forward for The Lilac Time. Somehow both refined and full of passion, this is music that no one else but Stephen Duffy (and 2 other Duffys) could possibly make, in 1988 or 2015.
From the near-country twang of "Prussian Blue" and on to the sublime "The Western Greyhound", each cut on No Sad Songs unfurls as a potent reminder of Stephen Duffy's seemingly effortless pop genius. On the surface, these tracks seem so simple but Duffy, like those guys in The Blue Nile, or earlier British folk legends, understands that sometimes less is more. A turn of phrase coupled with a slight chord change can announce a wave of emotion as great as any big shout-y chorus on an old Motown single. I can remember playing "The Last to Know" over and over again in 1989 in an attempt to try and decipher how Duffy was working his magic. And, still not a musician myself, I find myself doing it again in 2015 with "She Writes a Symphony" and other songs on No Sad Songs.
But the secret is clear. It's the pop-craft that counts and here, on No Sad Songs, each piece of production, each instrumental little bit, each backing vocal line, seems in service of something perfect. The elements all make sense and nothing seems too much and, for that reason, Stephen Duffy remains one of the world's greatest songwriters.
Stephen Duffy has done something miraculous here. He's managed to make what sounds like a progression from his earlier classic stuff. Look, as big a fan as I am of the guys, I will readily admit that every time I picked up an Aztec Camera record that was not High Land, Hard Rain (1983), it was with the awareness that Roddy was never gonna write anything as good as those songs again. And while the reunion of Robert Forster and Grant McLennan not so very long ago in a version of The Go-Betweens filled me with profound joy as a fan it also filled me with regret that, despite some wonderful new tunes being penned, those blokes were never gonna give me another Tallulah (1987). But here, on No Sad Songs (2015), I can say that Stephen, Nick, and Claire Duffy have almost improved upon the template laid down some 27 years ago. No Sad Songs doesn't disappoint. There's no moment here where one wishes they were playing an old Lilac TIme record instead. The only regret here for me as a listener is that I didn't listen to every single damn thing that The Lilac Time did following those first 3 records.
No Sad Songs offers up a Lilac Time that is older and wiser, 'natch, but Duffy's stuff was always the sound of an old (wistful) man trapped in a young fellow's body. That sense of the passing of time has not turned this guy into a dour folkie but, rather, a guy who is determined to savor each joy of life.
Warm without being cloying, sentimental without being sappy, pop without being ridiculous, No Sad Songs is a nearly-perfect record. These 10 songs will restore your faith in what music can mean to a careful listener. And, as a fan of this band, I can say that the group sounds fantastic here.
You want to feel better about life? You want something to warm your cold heart as you wait for spring? Spin just about anything on No Sad Songs. Yeah, it's that good.
Thank God that we have The Lilac Time back again! You were so missed.
No Sad Songs by The Lilac Time will be out early next week via Tapete Records.
Follow The Lilac Time on their official website.
(Photos: Nick Duffy)