In a post-Winehouse world, retro-styled R&B singers popped up all over the U.K. while record labels on both sides of the Atlantic eagerly snatched up would-be starlets with “distinctive voices,” basically to the point that one needed flashcards to keep the new crop of sultry singers straight. What other hope was there of telling a Duffy from an Adele, not confusing Adele with Estelle, crossing your T’s and dotting your Ida Marias?
Brit crits dubbed the expanding cast of brand new old school divas “the new Amys,” a phrase which owed its morbid currency to the fact that the old Amy couldn’t finish a week without turning up in druggy disrepair on the front page of one tabloid or another. Naturally, each one of said divas protested the label, which, naturally, didn’t do a damn thing to stop it from catching on. It’s an injustice on some level: The singers aren’t exactly interchangeable, not any more than the Strokes are with the White Stripes, or Pearl Jam with Stone Temple Pilots, but the whole point of the tenuously constructed musical category is that we are people who have shit to do and a finite amount of time for dwelling on the distinctiveness of each new pinchy-voiced pop sensation, and as such, this kind of lumping is as practically necessary as it is academically indefensible. It’s incumbent on the singers to convince us of their exceptionality.
This was the biggest failing of Duffy’s Rockferry: that it didn’t find the singer a personality as distinctive as her voice. Endlessly’s “Well, Well, Well” made a promising first single because it showed off a sassier, brassier Duffy who could sell a song with the approximate lyrical content of “tsk, tsk” as a floor-filler on little more than attitude. But the single must have exhausted Duffy’s inner diva, as the remainder of her sophomore disc indulges in Faux-town soul and preening lounge-act pop, like Dusty Springfield given a low-dose tranquilizer and force-fed the squeaky part of a dog’s chew toy. The album lasts all of 33 minutes, and rigorously maintains a 1:1 ratio between dance tracks and ballads.
Of the two, it’s the upbeat numbers that show the most promise. In one sense, Duffy follows American pop singers like Rihanna, Christina, and Usher in their embrace of retro club sounds, but rather than taking a ride on Gaga’s disco shtick, she leaves the Eurotrash synths and titanic drum machines to litter someone else’s Fame Monster cash-in. The best songs on Endlessly favor punchy brass and live percussion: “Well, Well, Well” benefits from Questlove’s funk-flavored drumming, and “My Boy” makes smart use of the hi-hat to break up its straightforward 4/4 pulse. The pair find a credible space between Northern Soul and Motown disco that’s been under-exploited in the craze for all thing’s ’80s, but even those numbers skew safe and cozy, hardly the thing to sate the dance world’s appetite for edginess.
The bigger problem with Endlessly is that Duffy compensates for her lack of a star persona by overdrawing her syrupy rasp, already noted for its acquired tastiness, into a cartoonish oddity. Listening to “Girl,” you’d think Duffy was seven; listening to “Too Hurt to Dance” you’d think she was 70. Meanwhile, “Don’t Forsake Me” might be the dreariest tearjerker to be performed by a Muppet since “Bein’ Green.” Even without the affected singing, these ballads would still be unpalatably over-sweetened. Two years ago, Duffy had us begging her for mercy, but after 10 tracks of Endlessly, I was just begging her to stop.