2014 may not have been a vintage year, but it had its moments. Like the time Stephen Duffy decided that putting out records was still worth it after all. So he shaved off his beard, sent the masters over to Tapete Records, and once again The Lilac Time was ready to face the world.
“No Sad Songs”, the Lilac Time's 9th album in three decades of being respected, admired but never quite rewarded at the folky fringes of the pop world, was finally released this April, 8 years after its portentously titled predecessor “The Runout Groove”. If the Guardian only recently called Stephen Duffy “the unluckiest man in pop history who hasn’t actually died”, “No Sad Songs” would suggest the very opposite. It is a celebration of the happiness that Duffy has found in out-of-the-way Cornwall with his wife Claire and their daughter, his old Lilac Time companion and brother Nick living nearby. Thanks to its contagious spirit, in the few months since its release, the album has already proved something of a life-saver, its gentlest of battle cries “Bohemia Forever!” ringing out in the face of pettiness and adversity (let's not mention that election). “I didn't want, if I got knocked down by a bus, that people say, 'Well, he had a couple of jolly songs when he was young, but then he released all those incredibly gloomy records and died',” says Duffy, “It is a positive record and a poetic record in a time when people need to find the poetry in life again, and not be afraid to call it poetry.”
This mission in mind, it makes a lot of sense to single out a beautiful new mix of the album track “Prussian Blue” for this upcoming twelve-inch EP. Ushered in by some previously unheard vocal harmonies from Claire Duffy, the song perfectly encapsulates The Lilac Time's undying utopian ideal of a world where a pop record will take the listener as seriously as a novel or a poem would. Where songs begin with couplets such as “Diaphanous friendships/In transparent splendour/Icons in infancy”, alluding to “our lilac emperor” (Claire and Stephen's little daughter) on the way to a chorus that must have caused plenty of discussions around Lilac Time aficionados' kitchen tables (“Yes, but Derek Jarman didn't actually hand-tint 'Blue', did he?”).
On three immaculately recorded live tracks, featuring all four Duffys (Stephen, Claire, Nick and, no relation, Melvin) as well as bassist Micky Harris and drummer Michael Giri, we are taken right back to the beginning of The Lilac Time with a gorgeous rendition of the classic “The Road to Happiness” from their 1987 debut.
Side B starts with “A Day in the Night”, the title track of their 1999 album which back then marked the end of another eight years' hiatus for the band. The extended coda over a loop of an Indian woman speaking, featuring more prominently here than on the studio version, explores exciting psychedelic tendencies previously only hinted at. This is The Lilac Time for Heads. To round it all off, “The Lost Girl in the Midnight Sun” (from 1989's “Paradise Circus”) effortlessly blends the bouncy bluegrass groove of the original with the most light-footed of Bo Diddley beats.
Even by their appreciators, The Lilac Time have not usually been credited as a mind-expanding, barn-storming live act. Time for another reassessment then.