The first new music since 2015’s No Sad Songs, Stephen, Claire and Nick Duffy return with their first release for a major label (not that they seem to be doing much to promote it) since 1990, the cover of Return To Us is a pencil sketch reprise of their 1987 debut.
Opening with ‘(I’m) A Believer’, a song of optimism in hard times when the world went stupid that namechecks Cecil Beaton, it’s comforting reassurance that musically all is as ever in their world with gentle, pastoral folk and country tinged pop couching the often acerbic, subtly political lyrics and assorted references to Stephen’s Birmingham origins. As for example on the harmonium and pedal steel backed swaying ‘March To The Docks’, a song about the D-Day landings (“we didn’t know we were landfill”) that mentions Constitution Hill.
The six-minute ‘The Hills Of Cinammon’, Nick on muted banjo, is a particularly gorgeous number, simple acoustic strum providing the intro to a nature-imagery infused, Americana tinted love song, mentioning Spitfires and The Beatles, as Stephen talks of family photographs, retail parks and asks “can I kiss you in the portacabin?” in a world where “there’s just money but there’s nothing to be shared”.
A yearning for more innocent times runs through the album, ‘The Simple Things’ speaking of life when you could listen to the silence and not be deafened by the noise of modern life while the jaunty pedal steel-led title track conjures a guide back to a golden age on the wings of song, a human chain out of the blackout where “the seas are rising and it’s not our country any more, ready for a civil war” and with bigotry and racism on the rise in an attempt to “stop them turning back the clock much further”.
The call for change is there too on the softly sung ‘The Bridge & Down’ with its simple military beat as, in a world where “Everything’s for show/And no one lets you know what they’re on/Till it’s gone” and it’s a case of “you either swim or drown” he reminds that “With nothing but a song in your heart/You can make a start to change your world.”
Again, on the woodwind textured, Brexit alluding (“no one voted to remain, they all went to the other side for a thousand years again”) ‘A River That Runs Both Ways’, he says “if you live your life the way you want you can be barefoot in this town”.
Nestling midway and closing with sleigh bell is ‘The Needles’, a song about change pivoting round Christmas and New Year which, nodding to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ in its opening lines, asks if the feeling of being alone is “the present you can’t get out of /Or the future you can’t postpone” and, while a love song to his parents, wife and five-year-old daughter, the line “You and your child don’t give up” could also be read to carry religious undertones and the trust in faith and the possibility of change when “the heretics who once slept on your floor/Are singing carols at your door”.
The album ends with the tumblingly rhythmic instrumental ‘King Kopetsky’, anchored by bass, percussion and tinkling synth notes with wordless vocals, named for the auditory processing disorder and the difficulties in recognising and interpreting sounds against background noise, a perfect musically encapsulated metaphor underpinning the themes that run throughout the album.
As it says in the opening song, this is an album to make you “Fall in love/Rise above/Be a believer”.
Artists’ website: www.stephenduffy.com
‘Return To Us’ – official video: