(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #25 – released February 1988. Originally posted on Kriofske Mix, 3/1/2015)
Track listing*: Love Is Here Where I Live / These Early Days / I Always Was Your Girl / Oxford Street / The Night I Heard Caruso Sing / Goodbye Sunday / Shadow On A Harvest Moon / Blue Moon Rose / Tears All Over Town / Lonesome For A Place I Know / Apron Strings
(*Many copies begin with a cover of Danny Whitten’s “I Don’t Want To Talk About It”, which was tacked on after it became a big UK hit four months after the album’s release. Since the band reverted to the original track listing on the 2012 Edsel reissue, I’ve done the same here.)
The band name of longtime musical and life partners Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, Everything But The Girl defies simple categorization if you scan through its discography. Jazzy and primarily acoustic, Eden (1984) neatly fits into the UK sophisti-pop movement of that period, but the jangly, guitar-heavy Love Not Money (1985) is far more driven by love for The Smiths than Stan Getz. Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (1986) mostly eschews six-strings for a full orchestra in an attempt to replicate classic Dionne Warwick as produced by Burt Bacharach. The only constant among these first three albums is Thorn’s low, somewhat reticent tone (along with Watt’s pleasant, if less distinctive occasional vocals)—and she came from a DIY/punk-influenced background as a member of The Marine Girls (he was the one who loved jazz).
Album number four, Idlewild deliberately backs away from the previous record’s opulence—it’s as stripped-down as Eden, but definitely more contemporary pop than jazz, and decidedly more mature (unusually so given that its creators were only in their mid-20’s). Thorn and Watt claimed they set out to make a “folk-soul” album, but were also influenced by contemporary R&B, particularly Janet Jackson producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Not that anyone would ever mistake Idlewild for Control, but one can easily detect a hybrid of textures in the former: crisply strummed acoustics and tasty guitar licks are as vital to the album’s soundscape as keyboards and drum machines (which account for all percussion). Still, the arrangements are generally understated, exercising more restraint than you’d expect from the late ‘80s, a period when up-to-the-minute recording techniques left a heavy imprint on most pop.
That’s not to say parts of Idlewild aren’t exceedingly dated. With its electro-hum opening and gently clanging hi-hat drum pattern, “Goodbye Sunday” is nearly Jam/Lewis—admittedly catchy in its mid-tempo strut, but overwhelmingly one of EBTG’s more blatant stabs at radio airplay. “Tears All Over Town” also lays on the synthetics a bit too thick and ends up resembling an exceptionally lush bedroom demo more than a band-in-studio recording. Fortunately, other tracks make inspired use of such modern touches. “Love Is Here Where I Live” may open the album with an isolated mechanical drum track, but from there the song feels more organic, agreeably resembling musicians playing together in a room. “These Early Days” and “Blue Moon Rose” achieve a similar balance: keyboards and programmed rhythms provide up-tempo brightness and oomph, while such timeless elements as soulful organ and chiming guitars retain a human touch imperative in enabling these songs to fully connect and resonate. That’s certainly the case with “I Always Was Your Girl”, a delicate, melancholy tune made even lovelier (and more layered) by its unorthodox, insistently tapping drum pattern and cowbell that subtly appears on the later choruses, adding tension to both Thorn’s yearning vocal and all the dreamy, elongated guitar and keyboard lines on top.
Still, Idlewild is never better than when it distills things to the barest essentials (arguably, the same goes for EBTG’s output in general). “Shadow On A Harvest Moon” is primarily acoustic guitar-electric bass-drum machine, plus a few muted trumpet filigrees, but it’s as robust as any great Simon and Garfunkel song (it also most closely anticipates a rewarding direction EBTG will take a few albums later). “Apron Strings” leaves the drum machine behind, opting for a simple acoustic guitar and lone keyboard duet that effectively supports Thorn’s almost unbearably intimate vocal without ever distracting from it. The album’s most striking arrangement, however, is on “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”, where Watt sings over nothing but an acoustic piano and possibly the least cheesy sax solo of the ‘80s. Such starkness draws extra attention to the lyric, where Watt assumes a character, a man in some undisclosed, war-torn country who is hesitant to bring a child into such a world. Then, the event relayed by the song’s title occurs; it thrills him like only the discovery of art can, offering him solace. Still, he concludes ominously, “But even as we speak / they’re loading bombs onto a white train / how can we afford to ever sleep / so sound again?” When wedded to such simplicity in the music, the pensive yet frank lyric gains in power.
And yet, I’ve spent nearly seven hundred words on Idlewild’s sound while only barely touching on its themes. It’s not uncommon for me to approach an album this way—I tend to respond to melodies, rhythms and arrangements over lyrics for their universal appeal. It follows that when I do notice and respond to the lyrics, their impact on me is naturally far greater, and they often recontextualize the music itself. If you were to isolate this album’s instrumental tracks, you’d end up with something that wouldn’t be too out of place on smooth jazz radio. You could say the same of later Steely Dan, although Thorn/Watt’s words are rarely as acidic or ironic as Fagen/Becker’s. Still, Idlewild’s lyrics contain more depth and vulnerability than its “everything’s fine” demeanor would suggest; it’s full of deceptively tranquil surfaces that act as conduits to far more complicated, occasionally darker places.
Most of the songs reference themes of domesticity: of childhood from one’s own perspective (“Oxford Street”) or that of a parent’s (“These Early Days”) or someone who longs to be a parent (“Apron Strings”) or is not sure he even wants to be one (“The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”). Each scenario is careful not to solely slip into nostalgia or mere contentment; “These Early Days” may begin with the gentle observation, “You’re only two / the whole wide world revolves around you,” but follows it with the line, “And nothing’s happened yet that you may wish to ever forget.” Then comes the harsh truth: “It doesn’t stay that way / if I could, I’d make it stay that way.” Suddenly, what initially seems like a cheery song sung to a toddler takes on the weight of a mother wanting to always protect her child but very well knowing how impossible such a promise is.
Thorn also sings of relationships in various states: the faint but discernible malaise following a honeymoon (“Shadow On A Harvest Moon”), the fear of hitting a rough patch or retaining the stamina to make it through one (“Love Is Here Where I Live”) or a bittersweet assessment of a long-term union and how the outside world perceives it (“I Always Was Your Girl”). That last song tempers a potential (if heartfelt) cliché like “It will always be you and me against the world” with richer, more specific phrases such as “You put your friends through hell and that’s why we get along so well.” Elsewhere, among songs with a palpable longing for homes both past (“Oxford Street”) and present (“Lonesome For A Place I Know”), there’s “Blue Moon Rose”, an ode to friendship and platonic affection between two women. It’s a subject you’d expect to find more in pop songs and generally don’t, but any novelty is diminished by such applicable, thoughtful observations as, “I have a friend and she taught me daring / threw back the windows and let the air in.”
As much as Thorn and Watt sing of specifics, Idlewild’s greatest strength is in how relatable they appear. We’ve covered confessional songwriters all the way back to Joni Mitchell in this project, but with EBTG, there’s a directness that’s quite powerful when the music and the lyrics are as symbiotically effective as they are here. We’ll return to them a few years later on an album that nearly pushes that symbiosis to its breaking point, although as we will see, Tracey and Ben had to endure both musical and personal hells in order to get there.
Up next: an alternate-universe 1980s.
“I Always Was Your Girl”:
“The Night I Heard Caruso Sing”: