Listen to this track by British folk-pop outfit The Lilac Time. It’s “Return To Yesterday”, a single as taken from their 1988 debut The Lilac Time. The band was led by singer-songwriter Stephen Duffy, AKA Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, one time synthpop solo artist (“Kiss Me”), and (as not everyone knows) a founding member of Duran Duran in their pre-fab five incarnation. He left in 1979.
The Lilac Time owes less to either project than it does to British chamber folk and American-style roots music, both of which are inextricably related of course. The band was formed by Duffy with his brother Nick in 1986, leaving the new wave sounds he once traded in well behind and taking the name of his new band from Nick Drake’s “River Man” (going to tell him all I can/About the plan/Lilac time …”). Musically, the band’s material is very Anglocentric in an age that preceded Britpop by the better part of a decade. The Lilac Time would even release an album on Alan McGee’s Creation label in 1991, although in a trend that would mark this band’s lack of good timing, that would be before Britpop reached its zenith.
One thing that Duffy kept as far as his early career in new wave was a high tension between melody and lyrical themes using a stark contrast between the two as artistic fuel. For instance, this song presents a bouncy, country-ish feel while simultaneously touching on a pretty weighty theme; the future and the loss of innocence where the future is concerned.
“Return To Yesterday” sounds like the perfect soundtrack for a road trip towards a bright and promising destination in terms of its musical feel, punctuated by an undeniable and very optimistic sense of movement at the heart of it. But ultimately it’s a song that’s marked by a doleful sense of resignation when you listen to the lyrics. By the time we meet the narrator in this song, his journey has already been taken and the destination isn’t what he thought it would be. There is a quiet sense of betrayal in this song where hopes once held in childhood have become revealed as empty all along as one enters adulthood. For that dynamic between melody and lyrics alone, it’s a masterful piece of songwriting and arranging.
“Return To Yesterday” is a personal reflection on more innocent times now lost in a new world, a place where services are cut, populated by “politician creeps”. This really isn’t a political song about the ever-worsening state of a nation so much as it is about the ever-worsening view one has of it when its wonders are revealed to be nothing but empty promises. What makes this song so powerful is how quiet it is about this deep sense of disappointment. It focuses all of that disappointment and resignation in a more down to earth context; a vision of someone on the “bars of your brother’s bicycle”, of younger and more innocent days perhaps when hope for the future came more easily. This song contrasts that remembered world with the greyer, shabbier present one, resisting the urge of “falling back into your half-term kisses” because those days are gone along with the person who once inhabited them.
In the middle of that bouncy sense of movement created by the music, lyrically speaking this song is ultimately a coming of age story that is something of an anticlimax for the person experiencing it. Maybe too it has something to say about the futility of nostalgia, and the tendency to deal with the world “in a fury of denial”, hurtling as we all are toward an uncertain future. In this, none of us will return to yesterday. Because realistically there’s never been anywhere to go but forward.
The Lilac Time never rose above cult status, and the same can be said for Stephen Duffy as a songwriter. Maybe in this respect, this song can be applied to his near-brush with fame riding on an international solo hit, then taken away by a plague of bad timing and lost momentum. Importantly, Duffy never settled for one-hit wonder status with “Kiss Me” in any case. Instead, he made a point of taking stylistic chances beyond that hit that not many of his contemporaries dared to take. The result was a critically praised series of albums marked by a distinctively British voice unafraid to draw from his own set of influences, fashionable or not. In the end, he found the way to move into the future on his own terms, leaving yesterday’s promises of fame well behind him.
The Lilac Time are an active musical unit today. You can catch up on their most recent news at thelilactime.com.
For more on Stephen Duffy and his cult status, read this article from The Guardian.