Review Summary: This particular precocious British soul starlet turns out to be worth the hype.
It's surely redundant at this point to draw attention to the fact that popular music moves in circles. Revivalism against invention, modernism against postmodernism, acclaim against mass appeal, innovators against followers - one of the best things about popular music is that all these forces work against each other without ever really syncing up in any meaningful way, which allows people to follow their own paths and create their own identity by judging for themselves where they stand in relation to these forces.
Largely, of course, people like to align themselves with the innovators, the originals. It makes people feel better about themselves, allows them to trick themselves into believing that they're into some big secret that nobody else knows about. Everybody knows underground bands with fans like that, but it's no less true for the mainstream, which is why Duffy arrives at the table with all the chips already stacked against her. She's white, she's British (Welsh, specifically), she's a soul singer, she's got a world-weary voice, and her music owes as much (if not more) to the trends of the '70s as it does to those of the '00s. Amy Winehouse already did this a couple of years ago, right?
And yet, we'd be making a mistake by lumping Duffy in with similarly derivative versions of mainstream sensations (think Starsailor, or The Fray, or The Time, or Badfinger, or Katie Melua, or Silverchair, or anybody else dismissed for doing something somebody else had already done pretty well). That's because when somebody compares a new artist to an established one, even one established with credentials as dubious as those of Winehouse, we're conditioned to expect that the new artist will come off worse. Remember, people inherently want to like the original model. This situation, however, is different, because Duffy is just as good a singer as Winehouse, and Rockferry
, on a song for song level, is better than Back to Black
. Nowhere is this more evident than "Stepping Stone".
"Stepping Stone" might just be my song of the year. It's the kind of dark, sweeping soul that soundtracks breakups in films too good to use songs by The Calling, and yet, it's so good that if it were released in the '60s it'd have attained a similar legendary status to that of James Carr's eternally brilliant "Dark End Of The Street". Like that song, it's moody, bruised, and quietly defiant, standing as strong as its possible to stand in the immediate aftermath of heartbreak. The personal touch in Duffy's vocal turn - somewhat showy, but always subservient to the song's meaning - sells it the way it deserves to be sold. It's a gem of a song on every level. And it's just one sign of the strength of this album that this song, brooding and deep as it is, is immediately followed, without warning, by "Syrup & Honey". Performed largely with just a warm electric guitar, it's a delicate, sunny track that might be dismissed as a throwaway by some extremely cynical listeners - yet, to take its lightness of touch to mean insignificance would be to miss the point entirely. "Syrup & Honey" is a classic soul song that makes absolutely no attempt to be a classic soul song, and in a business where every songwriter wants every one of their songs to be heard right now and remembered forever, it's hard to capture just how refreshing that is.
"Hanging On Too Long" and "Mercy" complete the album's peerless middle section. The former is lightly symphonic to the point of being nearly Curtis
-esque, while the latter you'll know if you live in the UK, seeing how it shot to #1 in the singles charts with absolutely no prior warning. "Mercy" actually sees Duffy turn in her worst vocal performance of the whole album, but the song succeeds anyway, being just the right mixture of modern sass and classic songwriting nous to succeed. It's almost too obvious - the "Stand By Me" bass, the "Light My Fire" organ - but I'll be damned if it doesn't work.
Those four tracks are the four best here, yet it remains impressive how well Duffy sustains her maturity throughout the record, and how well the musicians conjure a soul sound that ties itself to every decade at once without sounding dated. It's a neat trick; observe how even a simple track like "I'm Scared" is difficult to place in the genre's history, just as the requisite epic "Distant Dreamer" could have been as easily sung by Aretha Franklin as Julie Andrews. "Warwick Avenue" could even imaginably have been the work of Blue is The Colour
-era The Beautiful South, or McAlmont & Butler. The musicians involved in making this, Duffy included (and McAlmont & Butler included, oddly), deserve much credit for being unafraid to acknowledge their influences and their place in history, and also for resisting the temptation to simply imitate.
In short, Rockferry
doesn't sound like a debut album in the slightest. It's far too mature, intelligent, and restrained for that. For once, the mainstream critics (one laughable reveiew in the NME aside) have got this spot on. Duffy is a major talent, and Rockferry
is little short of outstanding.