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Title: ‘Music in Colors’
Where to find it: ‘Music in Colors’ (1993, Parlophone)
Performed by: Stephen Duffy featuring Nigel Kennedy
Words by: Stephen Duffy

Over the last 6 weeks, it’s like someone has pressed the fast forward button on my life, with so much personal and professional drama and changes swirling around me like I’ve been caught up in a twister. Before last weekend, a musician friend of mine who lives in Brooklyn posted one of those ‘Occupy Facebook’ memes in which we were to get friends who liked our status updates to post a video of an artist we liked. One of my writers was game, so I purposely gave her an artist I loved but I knew she knew nothing about: Stephen Duffy’s post-Duran Duran band, The Lilac Time.

You’ve probably never heard of Stephen Duffy. Or if you have, you probably only know that he’s written a number of chart-topping hits with Robbie Williams, including the #1 ‘Radio’. But before all of that, he started out as a shy teenager in Birmingham, trying to emote into a microphone while his buddies Nicholas Bates and Nigel Taylor played their instruments behind him. Nicholas Bates and Nigel Taylor became Nick Rhodes and John Taylor, who went on to stardom as Duran Duran without Stephen, who quit early on because he had no interest in becoming famous. Or so he says.

I could say much more on the matter, as I know a lot about Stephen’s back catalogue and personal and professional history (probably too much!), but he came into my mind when I presented his band The Lilac Time to my friend, I realized I had almost forgotten that he was really the first songwriter I’d come into personal contact with. When he and Nick Rhodes decided to start a side project called The Devils, I was the first person to make them a fan site.

The internet was still relatively new then, and he seemed every bit as intrigued about what I was writing about them as I was intrigued about his songwriting. I have an email of his somewhere in a drawer; I’d printed it because I almost didn’t believe Stephen Duffy had written to me. The subject line read, innocuously, “Me and you”, which made me laugh. In it, he said, “Thanks for calling me a lyrical genius!” (the only person I’ve ever anointed with that superlative), and also, “thanks for all your work with the website and everything i really appreciate it and i’m happy that you like what i do too.” That was really sweet of him. I spent far too much money and effort buying second-hand albums and imports to feed my Duffy / Lilac Time obsession – the most memorable moment was biting my nails, trying to win a rare piece on eBay while on holiday, tapping furiously on keys at an internet cafe in Vancouver, my father looking on, scowling at me to get off the computer – that him acknowledging me in an email and saying thank you made it all worth it. It’s funny how a few short years later, I am now getting similar thank yous from musicians who thank me for writing about them and helping their careers.

To me, Stephen is one of those great unsung heroes of popular music – only the people who have sought him out or accidentally “found” him have been blessed by his music, and in some ways, I think that is the way it should be. Even though it’s been over a decade since I was introduced to him by a shadowy London musician who I came to love, he’s still one of my ‘little secrets’. I don’t think Stephen or the Lilac Time would ever be massively popular with the mainstream anyway; his intention in songwriting was never to become famous, as leaving Duran Duran while they were on the precipice of breaking into the business is clear proof. No, Stephen Duffy’s writing is for the rare musical connoisseur, and those who find him and his music come to love and cherish what he does.

First, the words:

I hear music in colors, I see it in the air
And all the sisters and brothers, I see them there
When all the lights go out, all over town
And all the pretty fireworks fall down
I’m waiting for a wake up call, I don’t try to sleep
I watch fluorescent second hand creep.

You know I love another, does it bother you?
Do you think that one love is good enough for two?
The pure pain of jealousy a piercing fear
Passed right through her soul like a spear
We all have deeply hidden chords that someone else must strike
To hear the very ringing of the psyche.

I hear you split up with your boyfriend
And he seemed unconcerned
Love’s a fickle fortune, babe
Every penny must be earned
We’re astronauts, we’re angels, but we’re never coming down
For all the gods who passed us by have drowned
The boogaloo of modern verse is dancing in her mind
Still very much the nervous kind.

Do you like this kind of party? I don’t know why I came
They take winning so seriously but never play the game
I can smell the powder of your makeup, your perfume
Sense you when you’re in another room
Are they still talking about furniture
‘Bout one or other chair
I can only see you sitting there.

I see you in colors
I see you in colors
I see you in colors
I see you in colors
I see you in colors
I see you in colors
I see you in colors
I see you in…

Now, the analysis:

Depending on the day, ‘Music in Colors’ is either my favourite Stephen Duffy-related album, or in second place to 1999’s ‘Looking for a Day in the Night’. I could spend weeks analysing each and every song on either of these albums, as they are all tied tightly up with the first time I fell in love. But YouTube helped me choose which song to analyse, as the title track is the only one I could find as a stream.

‘Music in Colors’ is an interesting Stephen Duffy album for a number of reasons. For one, he enlisted the help of violinist Nigel Kennedy, which made all the numbers, including the elegantly named ‘Transitoires’, sophisticated instrumental segues, a cut above the rest. While violins and fiddles are all over the place in folk and even pop albums these days, that wasn’t the case back in 1993. The song is over 7 minutes long, but the last 2 minutes are an extended instrumental outro, with minimal words, that sounds to my ear like the culmination of how someone in love feels about his object of his affection. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. Also, that’s not a typo you’ve read: the album is called ‘Music in Colors’ and is spelled the American English way.

If you’re looking for a standard song structure with verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, outro, sorry, you’re out of luck in most of Stephen’s songs. He just doesn’t write that way most of the time. The way I read it, ‘Music in Colors’ is written in a very stream of consciousness way, and he’s very poetic as he does it. I’m going to look at each “verse” individually.

I hear music in colors, I see it in the air
And all the sisters and brothers, I see them there
When all the lights go out, all over town
And all the pretty fireworks fall down
I’m waiting for a wake up call, I don’t try to sleep
I watch fluorescent second hand creep.

If what my ex said is true, I understand that Stephen dealt with substance abuse and “I hear music in colors” is less about synesthesia and more about the colors you hallucinate when you’re on drugs, and being unable to sleep relates to being on too many uppers and finding it physically impossible to relax. Can’t say I relate. Of course, there are many reasons for insomnia that aren’t related to drug use, including unfortunate turns in the affairs of the heart, which could also explain verse 1, since we’ll get to heartbreak later in the song. If you didn’t even consider this song in the context of drug use, all you would notice is the gentle lilt of his voice, which I absolutely adore.

You know I love another, does it bother you?
Do you think that one love is good enough for two?
The pure pain of jealousy, a piercing fear
Passed right through her soul like a spear
We all have deeply hidden chords that someone else must strike
To hear the very ringing of the psyche.

He admits that he loves someone else, but there’s this other woman in the picture. In fact, it is her he’s singing to and she’s at the same party he is, and her memory haunts him, even if she’s not in the same room. “We all have deeply hidden chords that someone else must strike / to hear the very ringing of the psyche.” This seems to suggest that the woman he’s actually with is *not* the woman who pushes his buttons but instead this woman who haunts him. At the same time, I can’t tell if the second verse is meant to be sadistic or loving. He asks the second woman if it bothers her he’s with someone else: either she cares and it hurts her deeply, or she doesn’t care, in which case he’s trying to get a reaction out of her.

I hear you split up with your boyfriend
And he seemed unconcerned
Love’s a fickle fortune, babe
Every penny must be earned
We’re astronauts, we’re angels, but we’re never coming down
For all the gods who passed us by have drowned
The boogaloo of modern verse is dancing in her mind
Still very much the nervous kind.

Maybe he’s gained confidence in acting this way towards her because the second woman lost her boyfriend. In fact, he’s being quite callous with, “Love’s a fickle fortune, babe / Every penny must be earned”. This makes me think she never treated him well at all and he’s pulling the “what goes around, comes around” card. ‘Astronauts’ refers to the amazing 1991 Lilac Time album, I’m pretty sure, and in this context, he’s speaking of ascending like astronauts and angels, and being in a good place emotionally.

Do you like this kind of party? I don’t know why I came
They take winning so seriously but never play the game
I can smell the powder of your makeup, your perfume
Sense you when you’re in another room
Are they still talking about furniture
‘Bout one or other chair
I can only see you sitting there.

Or so I thought. The fourth and last verse makes it sound like he’s still very much in love with her. He’s dragged himself to this party and thinking he was going to be strong, but in actuality, just recognising her makeup and perfume, even if she’s not physically present, is affecting him. Her ghost still lingers: “Are they still talking about furniture / ‘Bout one or other chair / I can only see you sitting there.”

And then where does Stephen leave you? In this swirling, gorgeous outro that envelopes and cuddles you like a blanket. While there are stabs of emotional pain, the underlying message of this song for me, as I feel for the whole album, is one of love. Unrequited or not, it’s pretty gorgeous.

Lastly, the song, in stream form. As mentioned earlier, the title is ‘Music in Colors’ and whoever posted this stream made a mistake in typing the title out as ‘Music in Colours’. A real Duffy fan would never have made that mistake. It’s even wrong in Spotify. (Facepalm.)

Edit 21 September 2015: The account that posted a stream of the song has now been deleted. Listen to the song on Spotify below. I’ve also embedded the entire ‘Music in Colors’ album too, which frankly is a masterpiece.

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