Amazing what two years and a change of management can do to a person. Back in that lonesome year of 2008, Welsh singer-songwriter Duffy emerged as part of the neo-soul movement that included other prodigies such as Amy Winehouse and Adele. And while Winehouse was the first to strike it big, she was also the first to flame out in dramatic fashion, aka a drug-addled mess. Who knows if we’ll ever hear from her again. Adele scored some points on a number of adult contemporary radio stations with her song “Chasing Pavements”, which also landed her a couple of Grammys last year. But Duffy, she made a pretty huge impact herself thanks to a hit single “Mercy” and earned a Best Pop Vocal Album Grammy for her debut “Rockferry”. She should have been able to parlay that into continued success with a brand new album and single, but before any of that could come along there was a slight change in the tides. She parted ways with her managment team at the beginning of the year, which also meant leaving her songwriting partners and backing band behind too. One might argue that resulted in a change for the better as her new record “Endlessly” was co-written and produced by legendary musician Albert Hammond (Sr.) with a backing band of none other than The Roots. A winning combination, right? With her record coming out in the UK last week and the US release this coming Tuesday, press for Duffy seems just a little difficult to find (at least in the US). Her new single “Well, Well, Well” either hasn’t impacted at many American radio stations yet, or just isn’t doing “well” period (pun clearly intended). The point being, in two years, it seems like Duffy has been forgotten. Such are the fickle tastes of music fans. It’d be one thing if the new material sucked, but if it’s an improvement, to ignore or forget almost feels criminal.
You’ve got to wonder exactly how “controlled” Duffy was as she recorded her debut “Rockferry”. It took a couple years and a shoestring budget to get done, but she still had a whole team of people working closely with her on the writing and composition of the songs. She was positioned and “just so happened” to come around at the right time with the right sort of music to make an impact. Her initial debut may have been a case of “fake it til you make it”, but one thing Duffy can’t fake is that powerful voice of hers. That’s really what makes her a distinctive artist and it’d be impressive no matter what sort of music she was singing. On “Endlessly”, Duffy does explore her newfound freedom by crafting a record that’s diverse and just a little experimental, while maintaining a strong connection to her roots. Speaking of roots, The Roots maintain their reputation as a band of all trades, providing strong support on this collection of songs and probably making them better than they would be otherwise. ?uestlove’s drumming particularly stands out as exceptional and it’s draws your attention on single “Well, Well, Well” almost as much as Duffy’s vocal does.
Starting with “My Boy”, a fake audience applauds and cheers as a strong bass line and drums set a pretty brisk pace that’s less soul and more 60s pop inspired. There’s small splattering of synth and harpsichord along with a couple quick doses of rhythmic handclaps that really turn this into a fun, upbeat potential single. The chorus is also sufficiently catchy and there’s a bridge breakdown that revives the excitement of the “crowd”. In all the track probably ranks among the 5 best things Duffy has attached her name to. For fans of her slower, more soulful side, “Too Hurt to Dance” has strong echoes of Aretha Franklin and Etta James ballads, complete with sufficiently sweeping strings. The small dose of irony is that the song is perfect for a slow dance while the lyrics argue the exact opposite idea. Though songs about break ups are a dime a dozen, Duffy’s lyrics about turning the music down and drowning her sorrows in a bottle of alcohol are only interesting thanks to some creative wordplay. The heartbreak continues on “Keeping My Baby”, though this time the vibe is much more upbeat along with the tempo. Duffy may have kicked her man to the curb, but as the title says, she’s not about to get rid of the baby on the way. Strings and horns race through the mix, which bears both a remarkable resemblance to early Madonna as well as 70s disco. And “Well, Well, Well” most definitely has all the hallmarks of a strong single thanks to some smooth saxophones and both a sassy and soaring vocal. In an ideal world, the song would be getting much more attention than it currently is. Then again, it took “Mercy” about 6 months to properly impact, so maybe time is what it needs.
The rest of “Endlessly” plays out in an almost identical fashion to the first half, moving on basically equal footing with sweeping ballads and upbeat pop numbers. The title track is a slow dance love song that pushes to earn a “retro” status by placing the hiss and pop of a needle making contact with vinyl on a turntable. Touches like that aren’t necessarily needed, but serve a subconscious function…unless you’re all too conscious of it. The biggest experiment on the album comes in the form of “Lovestruck”, a strong pop song with echoes of “I Will Survive” but without the soaring chorus. Synths boom, strings race, and things get very funky in a good sort of way. And though it continues in an interesting pop melody, “Girl” is notable for how generally cute and snarky it is. Duffy sounds like she’s having fun while telling off this girl that’s trying to steal her man. “Go find your own scene, baby”, she tells the titular character. The same could be said for Duffy herself, as she cruises through the record dabbling in one genre here and another one there and so forth. It could be identity confusion, but more likely it’s just that she’s looking to mix it up a bit and try new things.
Without a doubt, most of Duffy’s fans were earned thanks to the success of “Mercy” and the hope by many that the full album “Rockferry” would have more pop gems like that. That the record was mostly ballads might have left some upset and confused, even though there were a couple more marketable singles that never made it to radio or flopped upon impact. One of the best things about “Endlessly” is how much more fun and entertaining it is than the last album. Duffy no longer has to play the conservative neo-soul card if she doesn’t want to, and the end product is a little bit better because of it. She lets her hair down and breaks free from some of the easy labels stuck on her a couple years ago. Yes, about half the new album feels like a continuation of “Rockferry”, but you don’t want to go completely one direction or another when your fan base is so tentative in the first place. Playing the balance is a smarter move, and once she sees what works and what doesn’t, that will inform how the next record comes together. At the very least, her live shows will be much more energized as a result of this album than they ever have been before. Thanks to this pretty good set of songs her and Albert Hammond were able to put together, Duffy now has a world of possibilities at her doorstep. Hopefully enough people invest in this record to help bring that potential all the way to fruition.