(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #100 – released March 2, 2018)
Track listing: Queen / Air / Guitar / Smoke / Sister / Go / Babies / Face / Dancefloor
After Amplified Heart gave Everything But The Girl a crossover hit with Todd Terry’s remix of “Missing”, this duo of Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt, then more than a decade into their career, soldiered on for two more albums of electronic dance music inspired by this late-breaking success before essentially disbanding in 2000—I purposely use that term, for the longtime couple stopped being a band but remained together in every other sense. Thorn, who had given birth to twins two years before, later revealed in her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen that she was simply ready to stop recording and performing to raise a family. She and Watt would have another child in 2001 and eventually, officially marry in 2008, over a quarter century after they met at Hull University.
Fortunately for her fans, Thorn didn’t stay retired from music (though she never returned to live performance.) Surfacing in 2007 with a solo effort, Out Of The Woods, she retained the sound of those later EBTG albums but on a more intimate scale. Directly addressing her time away from the spotlight on such tunes as “Nowhere Near” and “Raise The Roof”, Thorn crafted a modern, electro-update of singer-songwriter chestnuts like Tapestry and Blue. Her next album, 2010’s Love And Its Opposite, displayed a wider array of textures with a far more somber tone. She later called it her “mid-life album”—a keen assessment given songs like the uncharacteristically peppy “Hormones” (“Yours are just kicking in / Mine are just checking out,” she tells her daughters) and the stirring, chamber-pop ballad “Oh! The Divorces.”
In the past decade, she’s continued building an unconventional solo career: writing multiple books and a newspaper column, appearing on duets with such indie-centric artists as Jens Lekman and John Grant, recording a Christmas album here and a movie soundtrack there and just being a generally delightful presence on Twitter. When commencing work on Record, her first studio album of new songs in eight years, she tweeted something along the lines of, “Well, it’s time for me to make another album,” her casual frankness disarming as ever. And while I thought very highly of Love And Its Opposite when it came out and came around to thinking Out Of The Woods was even better than that some five or six years after its release, at present, I’m confident that Record is really Thorn’s most essential album since Amplified Heart.
“NINE FEMINIST BANGERS” reads the sticker on Record’s cover and one could not sum up its appeal more succinctly. Once again working with producer Ewan Pearson (having helmed the majority of her output since Out of The Woods), Thorn keeps to a limited but effective palette: synths, drum machines, some guitar and on one track (“Smoke”), a string arrangement. The blunt, one-word song titles perfectly fit their tunes’ musical and lyrical directness. Like Home Counties, Record was mostly conceived in a post-Brexit, Trump-ridden world and it subtly (and occasionally not-so-subtly) reflects such times from a distinct perspective—ever approachable and candid, Record is Thorn’s ongoing monologue of who and where she is now.
In that sense, opener “Queen” is an ideal statement of purpose. A sonic analogue to Saint Etienne’s 2012 single “Tonight”, it finds a woman considering herself in midlife over ringing, swooshing synths and a clarion, yearning chorus: “Am I queen / a magisterial has-been?,” she ponders, or perhaps “A star / Propping up the backstage bar?” They are questions specific to her life as a singer and public figure, but she shifts from the potentially autobiographical to the firmly universal by concluding, “And will I ever find love / or am I still waiting?”
From there, Record finds Thorn looking back and taking stock of her past. “Air” gently bubbles with traces of an awkward adolescence and the gender politics that drove and very nearly defined it: “Didn’t understand the rules or how to play,” she notes, before rattling off a series of self-critiques: “Too tall / All wrong / Deep voice / Headstrong.” Meanwhile, the music’s mid-tempo R&B-inflected pop (the closest Thorn has emulated the sound of Idlewild in some time) and breezy backing vocals from Shura reinforce the chorus’ simple but persuasive main hook, “I need some air,” with the word “I” delicately stretched out to five syllables.
“Guitar”, propelled by pulsating synths with the titular instrument only first appearing in the second verse offers transcendence from this dilemma. Although Thorn credits a boyfriend with “arm(ing) her with three chords,” teaching her how to play, it turns out he “was only just a catalyst.” She looks back on the affair with self-deprecation and a little bemusement, name-dropping Leonard Cohen, then slyly quoting his song “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” a few lines on (“Oh god, you couldn’t make it up,” she adds.) Still, she emphasizes her eventual self-triumph: “I couldn’t begin until I fell apart,” she admits before declaring, “Thank God I could sing and I had my guitar.”
“Smoke” goes back ever further, detailing her ancestral origin story in the guise of a modern folk ballad complete with a narrative structure and repeated phrases. Beginning with her Great-Grandparents, Thorn tells of how they moved into London (“to the rolling smoke”) and “had a son called James, who had a son called James” (“were there no other names?” she asks.) Two World Wars follow, and her mother “survived the Blitz / though she knew a girl, who knew a girl / who was blown to bits.” Thorn was born after her parents “fled the smoke,” escaping to the post-war suburbs where she herself would escape from come adulthood. Still, on the scintillating chorus, she sings, “London, you’re in my blood but I feel you going wrong.” As the song builds and sighs and marvelously changes keys at the bridge, Thorn’s history unfolds and blossoms, stretching on and outward like time itself.
“Sister” brings us back to the present with Corinne Bailey Rae’s brief, a capella vocal: it’s a beguiling intro to a minor-key anthem in the guise of an extended, eight-minute vamp sparkling with taut rhythm guitar licks, a mid-tempo beat groovy enough to dance to and an array of various synth filigrees (brought to the foreground in the mostly instrumental second half.) But don’t let the running time fool you—this is Thorn’s razor-sharp feminist manifesto and Record’s literal and thematic centerpiece. “Don’t mess with me, don’t hug my babies / I’ll come for you, you’ve bitten off more than you can chew” it starts before the singalong chorus where she states, “I am my mother / I am my mother now / I am my sister / and I fight like a girl.” Nothing cute, pensive or repentant here and that goes double on the bridge where she pointedly, cathartically asks, ‘Oh, what year is it? Still arguing the same shit. / What year is it? Same, same, same old shit.”
“Babies” is another anthem, far less angry but just as firm, offering no apologies for waiting to become a mother: “I didn’t want my babies until I wanted babies,” goes the chorus, following an opening verse that’s one of the most clever ever written about birth control, rhyming “you push a little tablet through the foil” with “better than a condom or a coil.” But the song is also an ode to what happens when you decide to have babies and when they grow up to be teenagers. “Go to sleep, it’s 3 AM / Where are you, it’s 3 AM / in a cab at 3 AM / Don’t wait up it’s 3 AM,” she rattles off as the music percolates with a joyous, assembly line sheen.
On either side of “Babies” sits Record’s two ballads. “Go” is addressed from a parent to a child leaving home for the first time. Over slow, lingering chords reminiscent of a George Michael lament (most notably “One More Try”), the generally low-voiced Thorn starts off singing in her highest register: “I resign myself to time and what’s no longer mine,” before her own grief gives way to tenderness and support as she tells her child, “Pack your bags and smile, it will only be a little while.” “Face”, in which Thorn scrolls through an ex’s social media page seems less immediate by default, although her self-effacing humor (“If I just keep refreshing, maybe you’ll disappear”) buoys what is a perceptive take on having perhaps too much access to too many people at your fingertips.
Record roars back to life on its exhilarating closer, “Dancefloor”. Like much of the album, it’s Thorn making sense of who and where she is now as a mother, sister, wife, singer, songwriter, musician, author, etc. She asks questions both philosophical (”Where did we begin?”) and searching (“Who’s just desperate for anything at all / anything at all like love?”) before proclaiming, “Oh but where I’d like to be / is on a dancefloor with some drinks inside of me,” hanging out with friends, turning it out together to such perennial bangers as Chic’s “Good Times” and Shannon’s “Let The Music Play”. The vibrant, fizzy, electro backdrop, complete with robotic voices repeatedly announcing, “ON A DANCEFLOOR!” reinforces all of this. When Thorn suddenly reveals, “Someone’s singing and I realize it’s me,” it’s a simple but immense, resounding epiphany—the kind one forever seeks but rarely finds in a pop song. How fitting that the last album in this project is not only called Record, but also recognizes how awesome it is that music has the power to shape and sustain a life.
Up next: 100 Albums concludes with an epilogue, or, my own looking back and taking stock.