Sunday, 12 July 2015

Visions of the Underworld by Patrick Duff

I’ve been a fan of Patrick Duff since his days as lead singer of indie band Strangelove. I can  remember buying the CD single version of ‘Is There A Place?’ for 20p in my local record shop simply because I was intrigued by its vaguely disturbing cover featuring shrink-wrapped shop manikins. This single was to have an impact on me that belied its knock-down bargain-bin price. When I listened to the a-side’s ten-minute onslaught of feedback-drenched guitars, screams and howls of displacement; plus the acoustic b-side ‘The King of Somewhere Else’, I knew I’d found a band who were speaking directly to me.

Patrick Duff and his music would be a fixture in my life from then on.  Some of the best gigs I witnessed during my University years at the end of the 90s – and I witnessed a lot – where by Strangelove at Leeds Duchess. Some years later, the upheaval of my move to Bristol in 2003 was sweetened by the discovery that the lost frontman was doing gigs locally. These included some memorable concerts in the chapel in Arnos Vale Cemetery, when I got shivers when Patrick launched into ‘Dead Man Singing’ and I could have sworn there were more people in the chapel that could actually be seen.

Around the time of my relocation, the rather patchy debut solo album ‘Luxury Problems’ was released by Harvest Records. It showed that Patrick was still angry, still full of self-hate and bile. Things changed with 2010’s brilliant self-released follow up ‘The Mad Straight Road’ which the singer described as “a synthesis of some of the music that has shaped my life – stuff like Disney soundtracks, The Beatles, The Kinks, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and Johnny Cash – it all went right into the heart of me and came back sounding like this”. Patrick now sounded more at ease with himself. More forgiving. Happier even. He seemed to have wrestled some of his demons down.

In 2013 ‘Visions of the Underworld’ arrived. The shrieks and howls of Patrick’s Strangelove days were now long gone, replaced by a contained unease and a quiet sense of wonder at the world. Recorded completely live in a cottage in deepest Dartmoor so that the sounds of the surrounding wilderness can be heard on some of the tracks, this is an album Duff has described as a collection of ghost songs. Spooky second song ‘Julie of the Rose’ would certainly fit that bill. With its opening couplet “Your touch is on my skin so cold/Your kiss is on my lips like winter snow” this could be a love song to a ghost, or even to death itself. Death, it seems, is never far from Patrick’s mind, and is especially prevalent on this album. Although it might seem oddly placed so near the start of the album, ‘Julie of the Rose’ sets the spooked tone for the rest of the album perfectly. The album actually opens with rooster crows and a calm air of warm acoustic guitar for ‘Danny Freeman’. The song is about a former drunkard and womaniser who’s been written-off but is now returning, having learnt from all his previous misdeeds and now speaking of a ‘treasure that can’t be sold’. Could this be Duff’s alter-ego? ‘Henry James’ seems to concern a similar figure who takes a stand against greed and land-ownership (I could be wrong) and features some beautiful guitar playing and singing from Patrick, with birds tweeting in the background. ‘Jesus’ is another gorgeous song musically, but the lyrics – a more straight-faced version of Morrissey’s ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’ – threaten to tilt the song into self-parody. It’s this lack of humour, or arch seriousness, which is this album’s occasional undoing.

There are three songs on this album which, in my opinion, match anything by Patrick’s heroes Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen and which create the backbone of the record. These are ‘The Thought Birds’ (released as a single in 2014), ‘Hail Holy Mother’, and ‘Midnight Garden’. It’s on these songs that Patrick’s poetry and lovely lilting guitar playing comes into sharp focus. ‘The Thought Birds’ is mesmerising with its hushed tone of disquiet. Played live, this song would usually end with a barrage of ear-splitting feedback, but here it needs so such adornment to unsettle the listener. ‘Hail Holy Mother’ picks up a familiar theme in Duff’s work: the enslavement of romantic love and his hatred and fear of the capitalist rat race. ‘Hail Holy Mother,” he sings, “as I rise to work each day. All of your loving is the price I have to pay.” ‘Midnight Garden’ is perhaps the album’s standout track, a haunting and sad tale of unrequited love.

Of the remaining tracks, ‘The Man Downstairs’ and ‘The Luckiest Man I Know’ are a little throwaway and continue the themes found in earlier songs. The album ends on a high note, though, with the same warm sounds and air of calm on which it was ushered in. ‘Flowers On My Grave’ is a kind of inverted version of Terry Jacks’ ‘Seasons in the Sun’. Instead of ‘Goodbye, Papa, it’s hard to die’ the narrator instead gives thanks for all the people and things that have contributed to his life. “Thank you for the love that’s lighted up my way. That’s something that I always meant to say.” When a close family member of mine passed away in 2013, it was to this song that I turned for solace, wherein Duff manages to make death sound joyful by forcing the listener to look back in gratitude rather than at the fact that, as he sings towards the end, we are ‘out of time, out of time, out of time’.

Overall this is a truly majestic songset which demonstrates how Patrick Duff is just beginning to harness his considerable talents and insights. If it reminds me of anything, it is Paul Simon’s 60s solo album ‘The Paul Simon Songbook’; and with his own songbook this rich Duff is beginning to eclipse his early stab at fame with Strangelove and prove himself to be amongst the greatest singer songwriters out there. When I shook his hand after a very intimate gig a few years ago, I was as starstruck as I would have been had I been meeting someone like Morrissey or Nick Cave, such is the hold Patrick Duff’s music has had over me since I first shelled out that measly 20p for a three track single by a band I’d never heard of.

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