After five albums, The Lilac Time's formula had become fairly obvious: two parts Britpop, two parts folk and one part -- for want of a better term -- British postwar nostalgia. Their songs always took place in a hazy, sepia-toned past, filled with picturesque village squares and rolling green fields. It was a timeless, pastoral world -- a Golden Aged stage on which Stephen Duffy's bittersweet tales would play out, forever fixed in time.
Of course, nothing lasts forever. With Lilac 6, Duffy and his cohorts (Nick Duffy and Claire Worrall) have taken a decisive leap onto the world of contemporary pop; imagine a less sardonic John Wesley Harding, prone to occasional bouts of husky, Peter Gabriel-style vocal sincerity, and you'll have the basic idea. Rather than leave nostalgia behind altogether, Duffy has moved his favorite wild card -- pedal steel, perhaps the most sentimental-sounding instrument ever invented -- to the foreground. It affects the music in an odd but interesting fashion; the distinctive lazy twang doesn't drag the songs onto country turf, but at the same time it prevents them from anchoring themselves fully in present-tense reality. Duffy, meanwhile, gives the most confident performance in The Lilac Time's history. Perhaps he's on prozac.
Perhaps that's also his excuse for "Dance Out of the Shadows", which opens the album by trotting out a shooting-gallery full of rock's hoariest and most facile lyrical couplings. Night/delight, rock 'n' roll/soul, dance/romance, night/all right -- they're all here, delivered without a saving hint of irony. To be fair, it's a catchy tune, but between the title and the lyrics you may find yourself wondering if Duffy has given up. Fortunately, "This Morning" -- the album's first single -- is stronger and poppier; it, too, has its share of "obvious" lyrics, but redeems itself through heightened self-awareness. I could see it working nicely as the theme tune to an hour-long TV "dramedy" about twenty-somethings starting over in small-town America -- any TV folks listening?
"Come Home Everyone" ups the emotional ante, pulling the group's tear-jerking nostalgia into the present day. For some reason, I connected this song with the World Trade Center attack -- lyrics like "Come home Daddy / Come home Mommy / Come home everyone who made it home", though pertinent to any sort of loss or loneliness, seem particularly timely in the light of recent events. Obviously, that couldn't have been Duffy's intention; it just worked out that way.
Fast-forward to "I Want To Be Your Man". Damn! Here, the group embraces its country leanings and produces something incredibly rare: a song written by British people that would fit in well on a Johnny Cash album. Mind you, it seems like Duffy knows this; his voice is uncharacteristically steely as he delivers the simple, powerful lyrics, making the song one of the album's most satisfying moments.
Lloyd Cole fans will groove on the upbeat, punchy pop of "Jeans + Summer"; too bad the group saved the album for autumn! The jetset-damning "Entourage", on the other hand, will appeal to John Wesley Harding fans. Purchasing Lilac 6 is justified by a single, brilliant lyric -- "Since we're through with morality / Can I sleep with your wife?" -- though you have to hear it in context to truly appreciate it. For the album's whimsical peak, skip ahead to "The Last Man On the Moon", which pairs its fanciful (allegorical?) narrative with the jaunty, percussive plunk of a banjo; for Duffy, pathos=payday.
Is Lilac 6 an uncategorically brilliant success? Not at all. Indeed, the first time you listen, you might wonder why Duffy traded the quiet surety of his dry, hazy compositions for these livelier but sometimes less empathetic tunes. These lyrics won't hop over the fence and conquer the literary world, and the music, though evocative, lacks the staying power required to truly haunt your subconscious. For all its brash advances relative to the group's personal continuum, Lilac 6 is not a record that will grab you by the lapels and give you a vigorous shaking. Rather, it's that most insidious of entertainments -- a record that, once it finally "clicks" for you, will inspire you to grab others by the labels and shake them 'til they agree to give it a try. A record you'll force on long-suffering friends. A record you'll urge them to listen to one more time, because you're sure they'll finally get it...
If that sounds like more than you signed up for, ignore Lilac 6 at every turn; it's records like this that turn us into the music-fan equivalent of Jehovah's Witnesses.