(Disclaimer: Those looking for a brief description of the album will find what they're looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review might not be written by the point of view of a Stephen Duffy fan.)
Overall Score: 11/15
Best song: “Kiss Me”
Worst song: “The Darkest Blues”
If you were a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and you were asked the question “Who was the original lead singer of Duran Duran?” and your answer was “Simon Le Bon,” you would have lost a lot of money. The correct answer to that question is “Stephen Duffy” who co-founded the band with John Taylor and Nick Rhodes before quitting in 1979.
Some might wonder how good could an ex member of Duran Duran be, but I've found him to be a remarkable songwriter who eclipses his Duran Duran brethren in several key respects. Not only has he released more albums than they have, but he's a much more consistent songwriter.
If I were to take a guess, I would say that Duffy was a bit bitter for having basely missed out on mega-pop-star status, because this album seems to be an attempt for him to achieve that on his own. This is a very Duran-Duran-esque record. But try as he may, the closest thing he ever got to a major hit was “Kiss Me.”
It performed well on the charts in 1985, but today it's probably best known for the Robbie Williams cover version from Rudebox. But if you take a listen to it, you'll quickly discover that it's a perfectly good '80s pop song. The groove is catchy, and the melody is breezy. When I listen to it, I get the immediate urge to get up off my chair and start busting a move. Perhaps it doesn't have much staying power, but my fondness for it tends to increase the more I listen to it. I guess the main reason it wasn't a mega-success was that it didn't have Duran Duran's sexy coolness.
Fortunately, the songs consistently continue to be mightily hooky throughout this album. The bad news is that many of these songs sound like clones of “Kiss Me.” They all keep the same general tempo, the drum machines play the same patterns, and even some of the riffs sound the same. Still, Duffy has such a pleasant, breezy way of presenting these songs that I'm never actually tired of listening to him sing the same thing over and over again. While more diversity would have surely been better, it's not a deal-breaker for me.
One way he might have fixed that problem would have been to spend a little more time in the production department working to improve and bolden his arrangements. There was a little bit of that going on with the catchy flute riff in “But is it Art?” and the lavish string section in the closing song, “The World at Large.” But as a whole, most of these songs seem awfully bare. Especially compared to the jangly albums he would eventually cut with The Lilac Time.
Other than “Kiss Me,” the album's other main attempt at a hit single was “Icing on the Cake,” which has one of the album's smoothest production values. The reason it wasn't a big hit probably had to do with marketing and the fact that it doesn't strike me as immediately catchy. It's the sort of song that I listen to and love, but it never completely sinks in.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment I had with The Ups and Downs was the ballads. While they continue to be well-written and unflinchingly likable, they don't really catch fire. While it's difficult to argue against a song with such a solid hook as “Wednesday Jones,” the song would have completely flourished if it were allowed to go anywhere beyond a simple piano ballad. I mean, A -level flourish. These ballads are too lethargic for their own good.
I've read a pretty negative comment about this album written on Duffy's MySpace page, so Duffy himself evidently doesn't think much of this. I would only agree with that sentiment if we're clear that I'm only comparing it to his later albums. This album sands up pretty well on its own two feet, so don't hesitate buying it if you've become enamored with his Lilac Time albums like I have. Even though this is electro-pop, the breezy and likable songwriting is unmistakably his style.
Kiss Me A
This is one of those '80s pop songs that might not be immediately infectious to me, but it has such a friendly, pleasant melody that it eventually works its way into my brain, and I'm bobbing my head most agreeably with it. Even after it's through playing. Duffy's vocals might not have the smooth-and-suave power of his Duran Duran replacement Simon Le Bon, but his sweet and high-pitched tone (which reminds me of Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys) fits the song quite well. This is one of his most well-known songs in the UK, peaking at their charts in the Top 5. But nothing in The States?
She Makes Me Quiver A-
This is almost exactly the same quality as the hit song “Kiss Me” except I find the hook to be only marginally less memorable. Another reason for the slight down-rate is that it's almost the same song. The drum machines sound the same, and they're playing the same tempo. But this stuff is so happy, lighthearted, and enjoyable that it isn't a big deal.
A Masterpiece A-
Once again, it's almost the same song as the previous two except the basic melody and riffs are different. But they continue to sound fresh and fun, so I'm not going to bother complaining about it. As long as you're up on the dance floor dancing around anyway, why not just let the momentum continue going? The funk guitar work is quite good and fun. The instrumental effects are more noisy and cluttery in this song, however, and I think they could have been mixed a bit more smoothly. (A few whirly sound effects just pop out at me, and nearly interrupt the flow.)
But Is It Art? A-
This is even more lighthearted than the previous tunes, particularly with that fruity flute riff playing a cute loop reminiscent of Talking Head's “Naive Melody.” The vocal melody is bouncy, sweet and memorable. I suppose we could complain that he's still using a drum machine at the same general tempo of the three previous songs, but it's a bit more in the background and it has a slightly different sound.
Wednesday Jones B
A piano ballad without drum machines! Ballads are certainly Duffy's strong suit in The Lilac Time, and this one starts with very strong hooks, but unfortunately it doesn't quite pick up the steam necessary for this to make a strong impression. Nonetheless, it warms up on you, and it's certainly a good change-of-pace for the album.
Icing on the Cake A
This is quite clearly another attempt at a huge radio single! Yes, it's another Duran-Duran-esque pop tune, and the synthesizers and beats seem more polished and streamlined than the previous songs. ...And I'll tell you, this guy knows how to write good pop hooks! Not only does it have a great verses section, but a wonderful chorus! The bridge he writes to get to that chorus almost seems too refined. Clearly, there are good melodic ideas just brimming out of this guy. I mean, if Stephen Duffy rejoined Duran Duran in 1985, and they only did these songs for Notorious, that album would clearly be a minor classic instead of the crap-pile that it is.
The Darkest Blues B
He's going to get way better at ballads. Or at least, he's going to find a way to better instrument them (unquestionably with a band he was on the verge of forming). This ballad is rather dull and flat. But the melody is actually what ends up slightly winning me over; it is strong enough to actually mildly pop out at me. ...This song still has a real problem with development and it never catches fire. The quicker songs do catch fire, but that's just because of the drum machine!
Be There B
Back to the agreeable and catchy drum machine ridden pop numbers! It's not extremely lesser than the other songs and the hook is strong, but I feel like I have to downgrade it just because I have an awful difficult time telling it apart from the other songs. However, the use of the string section that's punctuated by pizzicato strings was a nice idea.
Believe in Me B
You know, if Stephen Duffy wasn't so terribly good at writing pop hooks, I would be screaming at him for writing another song that sounds the same. I mean, the riff is similar, the beat is similar, the instrumentation is similar. But how can I possibly scream at somebody for writing a song that's so warmhearted and pleasant? ...No I can't. I'm still bobbing my head quite agreeably to this.
The World At Large Alone B
This is a ballad, but a real B as opposed to the last two, which were just B s as a penalty for saminess. The melody is sweet and sounds like one of Barry Manilow's good songs. The melody is sweet, and the string arrangements were a nice, lush touch. But the problem I have is the beat is a little too plain and lethargic, and the texture is rather flat, so it's not given the proper chance to catch fire and soar. That's a shame, because there's definitely the potential for an A rating here.
This might not be Stephen Duffy's best album, particularly in the orchestration department, but I'm telling you that every song here has a good melody. And I just immediately like his friendly singing voice.
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The Ups and Downs (1985) | Because We Love You (1986) | Designer Beatnik (1986) | The Lilac Time (1987) | Paradise Circus (1989) | & Love For All (1990)
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