Return to Us
The Lilac Time
In 1987, an unassuming looking album appears in the racks of my local record shop. It has a photograph of a lone building, a rural retreat in the countryside. On the cover, the name of the band looks like it has been hastily transferred on. The band are called The Lilac Time and on the inner sleeve they’re pictured smiling widely, the singer looking particularly cheerful, as if he has finally been released from years of having to pout in promotional photoshoots in order to promote music that he didn't really believe in.
In 2019, the tenth album by The Lilac Time has arrived and it bears the same image as the debut, except this time the picture has been painstakingly and beautifully woven, and the name of the band looks like it has been weaved with a golden thread. As one great Brill Building songwriter once observed 'My life has been a tapestry of rich an royal hue....'
Stephen Duffy's own take on history is laid out in the lyrics of ‘(I’m) a Believer’, the opening song of 'Return to Us' : '...I appreciate the past but I'm never nostalgic/ life can be hard enough without all that bullshit.’ Maybe he’s a man who is content with the way his life has unfolded, maybe he just doesn’t want to be bothered by any more questions about his pre-Lilac pop career, maybe it’s frustration at the jingoism of Brexit. Maybe it’s all three of these and plenty more besides.
The delicate country-folk that defines The Lilac Time has always been the perfect accompaniment for Stephen Duffy’s lyrical concerns. The slide guitar on ‘March to the Docks’ adds to the melancholy of a poignant protest (‘…we didn't know we were landfill’). Whilst the sorrowful poetry of ‘The Hills of Cinnamon’ is made all the more beautiful by brother Nick’s violin and wife Claire’s delightful harmonies.
If this all sounds a little too downbeat, the breezy twang of the title track reminds you that in a saner world The Lilac Time should have had countless chart successes. It’s a delightful pop song that somehow finds time to mention the American writers Susan Sontag and Frank O’ Hara. Elsewhere, ’The Needles’ is a mature Christmas song that, like ‘The Wedding Song’ on their previous album (‘No Sad Songs’), finds salvation in family life without ever being gooey.
‘Return to Us’ is an absolute delight. Alongside the restored ‘I Love My Friends’ (released earlier this year and reviewed by Outsideleft here), it is another example of what a smart, subtle and, sometimes profoundly moving, songwriter Stephen Duffy is. In the words of another celebrated Brill Building songwriter, I'm a believer.