Stephen Duffy / The Lilac Time

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In 1991, with his stubbornly rustic folk band the Lilac Time on the verge of disintegrating, Stephen Duffy released Astronauts, a mostly acoustic collection of songs that turned his failures into a beautiful defeat. More than a decade later, and three albums into the Lilac Time's resurrection, comes Astronauts' logical successor. The melancholy is a by-product of different concerns -- the uncertain aftermath of September 11, a mid-life crisis, and the gulf between even the closest lovers that seems unbridgeable -- but the effect is largely the same. Dredging through his autobiography even more than usual, and setting the reminisces to delicate fingerpicking (simply accented by the occasional jolt of electricity, weeping pedal steel, or even Dylan-esque harmonica), Duffy has fashioned his most personal album yet, and also his most timeless. A keen student of pop history who's always been remarkably candid about his borrowings and affectations, he lets almost no stylistic flourish get in the way of the painful nostalgia here; "So Far Away," after reciting its roll call of fallen icons of the Left, wearily concludes, "I won't even ask them to stay," while "Oh God" pleads simply and repeatedly, "Give me something to believe in" amidst scenes from his past. It follows that the finest moment here is also the bleakest: "Nothing Can Last" is a love song without hope, whose absence gives the warm and gentle strumming a razor's edge. "If you are the answer," Duffy sings, "then love is like cancer." The comparison is made frequently, and sometimes flippantly, but had Nick Drake survived to be tormented by middle age, the modern age, and all its discontents, this is quite likely the album he would have made. That Stephen Duffy kept going and did it instead is much to his credit, and to music's benefit.

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