The Lilac Time
In the early Noughties I bought an album on the strength of the cover art. Black and red, the blurred outline of a face, a hand reaching up or out (to protect, to caress?) and ‘The Lilac Time’ in white text, off-center. Simple. Powerful. Who was this, their music nestled deep in a busy CD rack in HMV, surrounded, with some artistic licence, by Leonard Cohen and Linda Ronstadt?
I know exactly where I was the first time I played it. A flat in Chelmsford, slumped in a chair, curtains drawn against the rest of the day. Prepared to be underwhelmed, I almost fell off it. I couldn’t name it then, and still have difficulty now; what was I hearing, what was it saying to me and where the hell had it been for the first thirty years of my life?
You may have experienced something similar. You may have stumbled over something that tunnels to your core, that welds itself to your consciousness, and nothing, nothing, is ever the same because what you’ve heard, or read, seen, touched or tasted is now and forever number one in your mind’s speed-dial; a firework under your joy, a bolt-hole against your fears, a balm for your sorrows.
I went out that night expecting people to look at me differently. Yes!, they would say, it’s about time; isn’t it marvellous? How did it take you so long? No-one did. Instead, everyone I saw or spoke to appeared paler, insubstantial, with a tenuous hold on reality. I pitied them. I tried to articulate what was missing in their lives. I’m still trying.
It starts with a lullaby, a lyric so romantic I limit my exposure for fear it will fade with repeated play.
I was looking for a direction / I was looking for something new / I was looking for some salvation / And I found them all with you
When Stephen Duffy sings, prepare your cup to receive equal measures Autumnal disappointment, satire, love and desire, protest and self-analysis, ideas and ideals, (self-) mockery and the passing of time. Listen as they gently insinuate themselves into your head, where previously unknown and locked receptors wake to welcome poetry you didn’t know you needed, but can no longer live without. Words for wounds.
The music defies category, a hybrid of styles sourced from an alternate-England where the craft of songwriting isn’t a crime, news travels slowly and popular is neither a genre nor the trigger to a fat bank balance. It’s never less than beautiful, revealing layers like the opening of a time-lapsed rose – always another angle, aimed to catch, reflect or temporarily dismiss the light. Acoustic and electric instruments dance around each other, former lovers on one final walk through the park together, sometimes in step, sometimes at odds, aware of their past, one eye on the future and always afraid to say goodbye in case it’s the last time they do. Melodies for memory.
‘ A kiss from your lips, eclipses each kiss, and makes abstinence a crime / Don’t leave me playing, in the rain / A child again
Stephen has intimated that this album was the point at which a latent, unfocused desire met its muse. That journey stutters and loses itself in mis-direction and uncertainty, only to offer glimpses of success, as if his sat nav had suddenly re-connected and re-calibrated. So the listener observes that
The descending bass lines / Seem to know where they’re going / But I can’t get, out of my room
yet, verging on despair, he is offered a way out,
Have you walked alone in the morning sun? / Bathing in that pale light, the day has just begun
which finally leads to a recognition of sorts; a statement of intent,
But when you wake up I’ll be there / Arranging flowers in your hair / And telling you “No, I don’t care” / What you did in your dreams
I think of these things when The Lilac Time play. My dreams of being a musician and writer, spun out on the thinnest threads, rising into a Spring morning full of hope. Looking down on the Wastwater valley from Wasdale Head, a good day’s walk behind me and my heart lifting above the deepest scar in England’s skin, the wind barrelling down from Great Gable and threatening to carry all before it. Sitting in a leather armchair in front of a log fire, a glass of Catena Malbec in one hand and Haruf’s ‘Plainsong‘ in the other. Standing on the edge of a wood, looking down on a valley through which a quiet river runs, willow trees bent in prayer concealing its route. An outgoing tide in a crescent bay, blood-red with the sunset, whispering rhythmic goodbyes. Wanting to be someone else. Wanting the someone else to be the better me.
For days afterwards, I dream in Pre-Raphaelite colour. My body is looser, the hard-wires relaxed. I don’t see the dark and the dirt, the grey city concrete, the irritable commuter or the fake news headline. I don’t feel the tyranny of routine or the weight of responsibility. I don’t accept the world’s crushingly banal race to an end-game. My small average life, strung out before me like torn and bent paper dolls, stiffens with resolve, solidifies with purpose. Small kindnesses magnify in meaning, possibilities become feasible. I land from leaps of faith with sure feet and a balanced step. I am more ‘here and now’ yet deliciously elsewhere than any music has permitted me to travel.
Am I a little in love with Stephen Duffy? Probably. My wife would, I hope, understand. If I could sit everyone I know down in an empty room and play them Lilac Time albums all day I would.
Why should I be the only lucky one?
Lyrics used with the permission of Stephen Duffy
COOK CD 176
- Stephen Duffy re-releases I Love My Friends in April 2019.
- The Lilac Time’s tenth album, Return To Us, is scheduled for release in 2019.
- A Lilac Time compilation is also rumoured for release towards the end of 2019.
- The Lilac Time
- On Soundcloud
- Cornwall Live Interview