Despite a career with his on-again, off-again band the Lilac Time that's lasted a productive 15 years, Stephen Duffy is still best known for two things he probably doesn't want mentioned again. For one, as Stephen "Tin Tin" Duffy, the man produced a verifiable new-wave dance hit in "Kiss Me." (You've probably heard it on '80s comps or the recent Party Monster soundtrack.) More notoriously, Duffy is known as the fella who quit the art-school band he helped found at the end of the '70s -- which is too bad, really, because he could probably afford a nicer castle if he'd stayed in Duran Duran.
None of this musical background prepares one for the post-Syd psych-folk of the Lilac Time, the band that has become essentially Duffy and whoever's around the studio at the moment. But on Keep Going, one can hear where such cruel brushes with fame and fortune have led him: Duffy's beaten a hasty retreat behind the walls of Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Roman Polanski. Those influences are tattooed on each song on Keep Going -- the Plastic Ono crackle of "Don't Feed the Rats," the soft lap steel and West Coast melancholy of "Bank Holiday Monday," more name-drops than a Van Morrison mantra (from Tim Hardin and Lennon to Auden and Fitzgerald). But rather than reflecting his heroes' glory onto himself, Duffy's name-checks come across as desperate incantations -- as though singing that W.H. Auden and John Lennon "left middle England / where they suffocate everything" will somehow make that escape true for him.
By the end of this record, we know that escape he won't, but Keep Going he will -- that the only thing saving him from the horror of the modern world is the absolutism of modernism itself; Beckett's demand that Duffy can't go on; he'll go on. The least doldrums, Floyd-y piece on Keep Going must be the title track, a piece of harmonica-and-steel-guitar country shuffle on which Duffy sums himself up perfectly: "My epitaph will be / 'In dazzling obscurity / he played his songs for free / and a royalty'." And with a little country kitchen-jam sound, by god, it's almost happy -- and oh, so human. (In a minor twist of fate, just as Stephen Duffy's retreat sounds so final, the man's beginning to enjoy a bit of a revival. His archetypal, suave appearance is gracing chill-out dance compilation covers and party fliers, and old Lilac Time numbers are airing in the backrooms that made quiet-is-the-new-loud types like Beth Orton and Kings of Convenience a hit with post-E kids.)
If Stephen Duffy is retreating by going forward, then Neil Hannon -- now the sole member of The Divine Comedy -- is pulling the exact opposite trick. Already proven indie hitmakers, The Divine Comedy's major-label debut, 2001's Regeneration, flopped both critically and commercially. Hannon's austerity measures were severe: He fired the whole band, quit his world-renowned wine-and-women lifestyle, became a father, and spent months touring America alone.
And then, as if doing it just to prove he could, Hannon made Absent Friends, a return to The Divine Comedy's signature sound and possibly the finest record of his career. Like Duffy, Hannon's oft-mentioned old (i.e. pre-Regeneration) influences abound: Noel Coward, Scott Walker, David Bowie, Paris, Rome. (He's a name-dropper too, with Jean Seberg, Oscar Wilde and Steve McQueen getting the nod.) There are also some new variations making an appearance: The title track owes American Western soundtracks a curtsy, and Hannon seems to have picked up the best of the Dead Can Dance catalog and digested it whole.
But mostly, Absent Friends succeeds because it is simply a songwriting distillation of Hannon's turbulent life in the oughts: from the title's ironic implications to his band mates (he obviously didn't need 'em), to the closing paean to self-satisfied fatherhood of "Charmed Life." If that sounds smug and smirky, well, it is -- and that's The Divine Comedy's way: epic symphonic pop, full orchestra, gongs, oboes, the whole schmaltzy shebang. There are moments of old Comedy's Top-40 Brit-pop triviality, such as "Come Home Billy Bird," a hit-worthy tune in the tradition of Comedy hits about national bus service and the like. But mostly this is quirky, clever, graceful pop -- micro subject matter enveloped in macro orchestration, raising the everyday to sweeping heights. Like "The Happy Goth," which uses 100 tracks of Latin-inflected congas, horn and string sections, flutes, bells and harpsichord to paint us our title character's little life.
Absent Friends isn't for everyone -- in fact, many will find it distastefully over-produced and unfathomably pretentious. But if you can get through the part inside joke, part deadly serious scope without saying, "Oh, gaaawwwd," you might discover an album that takes an appreciative, 19th-century romantic look at the world and discovers something worth hanging around in. As long as you can crack a smirk at it now and again.