tremble clef

Friday, November 18, 2005

Stephen Tintin Duffy, "But Is It Art?" (1985)

I always find it strange, not to mention a wee bit insulting, when artists disown parts of their creative pasts.

In the sleeve notes to They Called Him Tintin, a compilation that 10 Records released in 1998, Stephen Duffy is positively snitty about his beginnings. Stephen's career has had, of course, several lives -- being the Pete Best of Duran Duran, the Tintin years, the Lilac Time, the single-monikered Duffy incarnation, The Devils, etc. -- but he first emerged with two solo albums in 1985 and 86: The Ups And Downs, and Because We Love You. Those are the two albums that the compilation chiefly documents, but Stephen, it seems, isn't his own biggest fan. "I was nineteen when I wrote 'Kiss Me With Your Mouth'," he begins, thereby already casting his biggest hit as a sort of youthful indiscretion. He ends by calling the mid-80s "the years [he] tried to forget," and considers 1987, when he released the first Lilac Time album, as "where the story starts as far as [he] is concerned." All else is prelude.

I'm all for honesty, and Stephen is certainly within his rights to consider the mid-80s as spawning only musical juvenilia. Except that, to this day, not only are The Ups And Downs and Because We Love You my favorite Duffy products, but I consider them to still be marvellous records. And while I hardly need someone else's validation -- even the artist's -- it nevertheless was a little irritating to pay good money for the compilation, as I did in 98 or 99, rush home, break open the shrink wrap, only to read the view that maybe I was a sucker for having done so.

Stephen says that much less explicitly than some artists have (hi, Jane Fonda), but the implication lingers. Who's to say, then, that if I support his current songwriting work with Robbie Williams, he won't turn around in five years' time to tell me it's shit and I was stupid? Thankfully, there's no chance of that happening, because I already think that Robbie's Intensive Care is pretty crap.

But when I read in the sleeve notes that Stephen thinks of "Icing On The Cake" as "the only decent thing on the [first] album," I find myself a little embarrassed that I still love songs like "But Is It Art?", with its funny jaunty sound effect and catchy chorus, or "The World At Large Alone," a heartfelt ballad that begins like it badly wants to be "New York, New York."

And I wonder what's wrong with me for still wishing, after all these years, for a rerelease of Because We Love You -- an album, in my collection only as vinyl, that I think is almost perfect. "A Lot Of Ink," for example, combines a twittering synth riff with some brassy trumpets, a hilariously cynical lyric ("I"ll get a lot of ink, out of our affair"), and in the middle, even turns vaguely French, with flugel horns and an accordian. Yes, there is a very expensive Japanese reissue of this second album floating around, and some songs made it to the They Called Him Tintin compilation. But not enough: "Love Station," an immensely danceable tune with even more rousing trumpets, for one, is missing, and missed.

Oh well. I sometimes like to imagine that an unheralded album is a secret that only the artist and I share. In this case, I guess I'll simply have to be happy being a fanclub, if not of one, then at least one that doesn't include, of all people, the artist himself.

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