Patrick Duff’s fall from grace was swift and painful. After six years in a moderately successful, intensely loved band he found himself on his own. The subsequent six years, bringing us up to the present, have seen him rebuild his life, sloughing off the skin of Strangelove and Moon (the interim “rebound” band that we don’t mention), securing new experiences, such as the WOMAD collaboration with South African songstress Madosini and mentoring teenage songwriters, all the while writing the songs we had come to Bristol’s Gin Palace to hear.
The previous night, Duff played a Strangelove retrospective with Alex Lee, a benediction to their devoted fans, loosely related to EMI’s imminent Strangelove Best Of. Lee is without a band now, after Suede’s bathetic split, and Duff has made no secret of the fact that he felt cheated by Strangelove’s demise, but it wasn’t a maudlin affair. It was indeed a pleasure to hear the old songs one last time, but the magic that made Strangelove so great was absent. The question posed on the final song of that night Â¯ Is there a place for me? Â¯ has been answered in the affirmative. The place for Patrick Duff is here and now, playing his new songs, most of which are as good as Strangelove’s, if not better.
It was, predictably, the more upbeat songs that got the best reception. ‘Mirror Man’ (with its scorching harmonica), ‘Married with Kids’, ‘Refrigerator’, and ‘In My Junkie Clothes’ are instant classics Â¯ surprising and delighting at every turn Â¯ with inspired lines like the following:
Upstairs she’s back on the phone, half-cut and having a moan,
White wine on the stereo, she can’t sing but she’s having a go.
Downstairs he’s trying to block out the noise,
The whole fucking place is covered toys.
Married with Kids, Married with Kids.
His lyrical range is impressive; as well as meticulously detailed narratives, there are songs like ‘Refrigerator’, in which he comes close to the kind of serendipitous genius of Subterranean Homesick Dylan:
Check out the mules on the kitchen stool,
The devils waiting in the nursery school,
The bucking broncos in the dressing room
The overdoses in the swimming pool.
The centipede in the kaleidoscope
The melancholic with the horoscope
The epileptic with the stroboscope
The broken hearts set in the microscope.
Funny and dynamic, all these are great pop songs played with a swagger, but it was the slower, reflective songs that enchanted this reviewer.
‘Julie of the Rose’ Â¯ “a song you can only play in wintertime” Â¯ is haunting with the soft tinkle of its piano accompaniment. ‘DJ Yoga’ details with disarming honesty what has happened to the Elin from ‘Elin’s Photograph’ (“My baby let me for a yoga teacher, she moved away to the other side of town, all she left here was her high-heeled sneakers: they’re going brown.”) In the past, Duff’s lyrics had the universality of youth, now they have the precision of maturity and are all the better for it.
The wit that comes so naturally to Duff these days softens the audience for songs that might otherwise come across as too personal, purifying us of any nagging doubts:
“When I was a young man I was in a band called Strangelove. We were on tour with a band called Radiohead, and they have a singer called Thom Yorke. I wrote this song for him when I heard that he had bought a house beside the sea. That has always been my dream, but he’s got it and I’ve got fucking one room in Clifton,” Duff pauses, waiting for the laughter to subside. “But not for long!”
Strangelove were always such a private pleasure, a secret between stereo and self. They were inappropriate in the disco and not the kind of band who inspired great debates between friends. You either knew them, and thus adored them, or you didn’t have a clue. It would be a shame if people didn’t get the chance to hear him now that he is at his strongest. Spread the word.