Everything But The Girl, “Amplified Heart”

amplified heart

(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #44 – released June 13, 1994)

Track listing: Rollercoaster / Troubled Mind / I Don’t Understand Anything / Walking To You / Get Me / Missing / Two Star / We Walk The Same Line / 25th December / Disenchanted

Following Idlewild, Everything But The Girl went to America to record their next album with Tommy LiPuma after he had expressed an interest in working with them. Producer of such eminent artists as Miles Davis, George Benson and Randy Newman, LiPuma seemed an unlikely choice for this understated British duo. While The Language of Life actually broke the band in the U.S. at last thanks to the VH-1 hit “Driving”, LiPuma’s slick, contemporary lite-jazz production left band and life partners Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt sounding a bit too middle-of-the-road for their own good. The next year, they returned to England and made the uninspired Worldwide, an album even smoother and blander than its predecessor.

A year later, Watt was diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune illness, spent nine weeks in a hospital, and nearly died. I mention this upfront because it is the key to understanding the album he and Thorn recorded after he recovered. Amplified Heart is, on the surface, full of songs about relationships in various states of disrepair and, in the case of its best-known track, obsession over a lost love. One doesn’t necessarily need to know the personal history behind these laments in order for them to resonate—Thorn and Watt remain exceptionally relatable pop stars, and the mostly acoustic, stripped-down arrangements allow for far more intimacy than those last two records were capable of. Still, once you know about the near-death experience its creators endured prior to making it, it’s impossible not to see how deeply it courses through it.

“Rollercoaster” right away establishes that Amplified Heart is a break from its recent predecessors. A lithe, somber bossa-nova, it’s mostly folkish/acoustic (the rhythm section consists of Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks and legendary double-bassist Danny Thompson) with the exception of a synth that plays the part a sax or a flute would normally take—it’s surprisingly effective, blending right in with the bass, not subtracting any of the song’s warmth but instilling a sense of otherness. Even more striking are the lyrics—the opening lines, “I still haven’t got over it even now / I want to spend huge amounts of time on my own,” could refer to a faltering love when coming out of Thorn’s mouth, but it’s Watt who wrote them. The song later references “the road to my redemption” (read: recovery) and its hook goes, “I’m not really in your head,” a phrase that can cut both ways, perhaps alluding to how this illness altered each partner’s perception of the other as it occurred.

While Amplified Heart is predominantly (and somewhat ironically, given the title) acoustic and thus sounds timeless, like Idlewild, it contains a few modern elements. Both “Troubled Mind” and “Get Me” have electronic flourishes (looped drum-and-guitar samples, some subtle keyboard shading on top) that are far less stiff and integrated more organically into the arrangements than Idlewild’s drum machines. However, they seem to support rather than dominate the overall pastoral and bright flavor of the songs, which are still guitar heavy. Lyrically, the tunes also seem to mirror each other. Thorn’s “Troubled Mind” addresses a partner whom she increasingly finds hard to communicate with (“I’m trying to keep up with you / It’s hard enough when you speak clearly”), while Watt’s “Get Me” (which Thorn sings) offers a response of sorts: “I’ll tell you things ten thousand times / but do you ever get me?”

This symbiosis becomes further pronounced on the two songs enhanced by Harry Robinson’s sumptuous (but not overbearing) string arrangements. Thorn’s “I Don’t Understand Anything” may appear to be about a fractured affair (“Do you want what I want?,” she pleads in the first verse), but it also succinctly expresses that feeling of helplessness one gets from observing and being unable to fully get through to their partner. “You reach for me from miles away,” Thorn concludes, and the distance implied is not entirely physical. Four tracks later, Watt’s “Two Star” almost bluntly answers, “Stop listening to me / and don’t ask me how I feel,” but there’s more going on than just an argument or infidelity. For one thing, Thorn also sings “Two Star” (she’s really the primary vocalist of the duo). Although Watt hints at his own recent experiences (the remarkably descriptive lyric, “And I watch Saturday kids TV / yeah, with the sound turned down,” appears nearly verbatim in his illness memoir Patient, published a few years later), phrases such as “To judge a life this way / when my own’s in disarray” are universal enough that they could easily apply to either partner/band member.

If much of the album fixates on distances (physical, emotional, psychological) between two lovers, Thorn’s “We Walk The Same Line” reaffirms the strength such a long-term bond can hold (“If you lose your faith babe, you can have mine,” she sings in the chorus). The song’s cheery demeanor is a welcome respite from the subdued gloom surrounding it, not sounding too far off from “Driving”. However, as with Idlewild’s “These Early Days”, the sentiment reaches deeper than you’d expect, for Thorn also acknowledges how easily this bond can be tested. “When we meet what we’re afraid of / we find out what we’re made of” is one of the most honest, insightful lyrics ever about what it’s like for a love to be threatened by something beyond one’s control; sitting right there in the middle of a seemingly anodyne pop song only sharpens its impact.

Watt himself sings two songs on Amplified Heart. While his merely pleasant voice will never match Thorn’s distinct, deep, elegant low tone, he does sound like a changed man (and looks it, too—compare the cherubic, floppy-haired figure on Idlewild’s cover with the far more gaunt, emaciated man not facing the camera here); in Patient, he writes, post-illness, “I find my voice has a new-found strength to it, a greater projection, more meaning.” When you hear him sing on the album for the first time, on “Walking To You”, you can comprehend such strength, especially as he’s placed upfront in the mix with only a bed of strummed, ringing guitars behind him. It’s a seemingly simple tune about former lovers who have stayed in touch as friends, but continue to question what could have been. Thorn takes over on the second verse, making it a duet, but when both their voices blend together so beautifully on the song’s remainder, it reinforces the value of this bond they’ve built together, both professionally and personally.

However, Watt’s other vocal song, the penultimate “25th December” is the album’s true centerpiece. Again, the music’s sparse—mostly gently chiming guitars (including an guest solo from Richard Thompson, another Fairport Convention member) backing Watt’s introspective, vulnerable, undeniably personal lyrics. The first verse reflects on how “my old man plays the piano for Christmas,” being surrounded once again by family for this most celebrated and often melancholy of holidays. “And I never, no I never, ever realized,” is the plaintive chorus; it acquires more weight after the second verse, where he muses on being thirty years old (which places this as the first Christmas after his illness). He asks, “Have I enough time, have I just some time / to revisit, to go back, to return, to open my mouth again?” For someone who has just gone through an extraordinary trauma, it’s a profound question. How exactly does one go on after courting, then cheating death? In the final verse, Watt’s lyrics turn metaphorical, as he tries to “unlock a door / with a key that’s too big for my hands.” He drops the key at (presumably) his partner’s feet, and the final lyric, “Come on, come on, it’s there at your feet” almost magically joins up with and complements the chorus, the two lines repeating as the song fades out.

Then, the album ends on the brief, devastating “Disenchanted”, where Thorn (with some help from alto saxophonist Peter King) mournfully concludes, “I wonder, can you try again? Are you that strong?” Its placement shrewdly calls back to that notion, “When we meet what we’re afraid of, we find out what were made of.” However, it’s not quite the final word. On later versions of the album, it’s followed by the Todd Terry remix of “Missing”, whose original version kicks off the album’s second side. I’ve ignored it thus far because it is sort of the big elephant in Amplified Heart’s candlelit room.

The album version of “Missing” actually fits in pretty well among its peers. Although built around a drum loop inspired by Raze’s 1988 club hit “Break 4 Love”, it doesn’t sound much like something you’d hear in a club. Still, it’s tough denying how transparently it stands out as the catchiest thing on the album. “And I miss you / like the deserts miss the rain,” goes its indelible chorus, as acoustic guitar triplets and atmospheric synths score a melody that gently glides along like a locomotive, with Thorn effectively guiding all in the right direction even as her narrator flails about in despair, seeking remnants of a life once shared with another, admitting, “You’re long gone, but I can’t move on.”

Initially one of Amplified Heart’s failed singles, “Missing” had a belated, rare second life thanks to Terry’s remix, which radically strips down the song to Thorn’s isolated vocal and places a minimalist but prominent rhythm track behind it. This new version slowly became a big dance hit that unexpectedly crossed over to the pop charts, even going all the way to #2 in the US more than eighteen months after it was first released. At the time, I lazily dismissed it as a sellout move because I had first heard the album and fallen for it after borrowing it from the library the summer before. Fortunately, within a few years, I grew to appreciate how Terry’s remix utterly transformed the song, keeping the melody intact while letting the beat heighten the palpable fear and longing in Thorn’s words and vocals.

The song’s massive success broadened the band’s audience considerably, but it also somewhat obscured the album’s accomplishment by sounding like nothing else on it. Thorn and Watt ended up reinforcing this by delving full-on into electronic dance music on their next two albums, Walking Wounded and Temperamental. It’s difficult to begrudge them for doing so—they were obviously ready to move on from such a rough period of their lives. Still, Amplified Heart aligns with the notion that the best art is often born out of immense pain. The crown jewel in EBTG’s catalog, it is an about-face where Thorn and Watt reaffirmed and utilized all of their musical strengths—it’s conceivable they could have made just as good of a record had they not gone through such hell, but it surely would not have been the same record.

Up next: Music startling enough to make you want to stop driving and pull the car over.

“Rollercoaster”:

“25th December”:

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EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL, “IDLEWILD”

Idlewild

(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”: