Tracey Thorn: Record review – Everything but the Girl singer, older, wiser, better
Unmade Road/Caroline International
Tracey Thorn began her life in music proper in 1980 as a founding member of The Marine Girls, and then two years later (with her longtime partner Ben Watt) as part of the duo Everything but the Girl. Just when it seemed as if the latter would take over the world in the mid-1990s with their blend of introspective lyrics and techno/dance music, she swapped it for motherhood, looking after Watt (in 1992 he was diagnosed with the auto-immune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome), and an ardent reclusiveness that she has only recently emerged from.
Her return to the music scene in 2007 (with a solo album, Out of the Woods) pragmatically coincided with longer school days for her and Watt’s three children. With some trepidation (an aversion to performing live adding to the concerns), Thorn re-entered the fray. She did so, however, very much on her own terms, with 2010’s Love and its Opposites setting a narrative outline that she instinctively sensed was appropriate for her age, personal principles, and outlook. That album’s songs viewed life through a late-40s filter – not via idealised revisionist assessments, but basic home truths of domestic travails, banal household chores and the simple facts of holding together a relationship despite occasional flickers of doubt, recrimination, and wandering eyes. As a pop songwriter, Thorn also made the rare admission of a woman approaching her 50s: there were so many more interesting things to write about than when she had been advancing towards her 20s. Who would have guessed?
Milestone versus millstone debates aside, Record (a diary of life events more than any other meaning of the word) is Thorn’s first solo album of entirely original material since Love and its Opposites, and is yet another unassuming but firm statement of intent. She has said of this new collection that it represents a particular “sense of liberation that comes in the aftermath, from embarking on a whole new ‘no fucks given’ phase of life”. While her description of Record as “nine feminist bangers” is a tad self-effacing, it nonetheless figures that everything here is imbued with female realities that hardly ever raise their heads in the context of a pop song.
In one of her recent columns for New Statesman, referencing the various “waves” of feminism she has experienced (from the late 1970s, when her heroines were X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene and The Raincoats to now, where she isn’t ashamed to admit to learning things from her 20-year-old “fourth wave” feminist twin daughters), Thorn says she sometimes can’t remember which “wave” she is. “Maybe it’s soppy of me,” she writes, “but I’d rather put all the waves together and be an ocean.”
Such intuitive common sense is writ large throughout Record, which mixes tight-fitting production (by longtime collaborator Ewan Pearson) with superlative signature vocals and guest appearances by Corinne Bailey Rae, Warpaint rhythm section musicians Stella Mozgawa (drums) and Jenny Lee Lindberg (bass), and UK singer/songwriter Shura.
One-word titles imply focus rather than lack of thought, and from opening electro-pop tune Queen (“Here I go again, down that road again”) to closing Kraftwerk-referencing Dancefloor (“Where did we begin, back in the days we lived inside each other’s skin”) via the punkish Babies (“Every morning of the month you push a little tablet through the foil/ cleverest of all inventions, better than a condom or a coil/ ’cos I didn’t want my babies until I wanted babies”), and self-referencing Air (“Too tall, all wrong, deep voice, headstrong”), Thorn digs deep yet carefully, avoiding traps rather than setting them. With such insight and pop nous, Record comes across as the very, very best of Tracy Thorn: a charming, challenging mix of reflection and reaction with added beats. traceythorn.com