Tracey Thorn remains one of the most vital voices in English pop – not necessarily a fate anyone would have bet on in the Eighties, even her early fans. In her excellent new solo album, with the droll title Record, the Everything But the Girl chanteuse tells tales of mid-life angst with the same wry wit she’s had in her voice since she was a sullen Brit-punk kid. The fantastic “Sister” sets the tone – over eight pulsing minutes of feminist rage, explicitly inspired by the women’s march, with Corinne Bailey Rae and Warpaint’s rhythm section joining in as she chants, “I think like a girl/I fight like a girl.” She sounds like a woman who woke up one morning to realize she forgot how to give a fuck anymore.
Ever since her influential indie duo of the early 1980s, the Marine Girls, Thorn has gone through an unlikely number of musical guises over the year – like a Zelig who shows up in every scene of a documentary on U.K. music. In Everything But the Girl, she formed an indelible partnership with husband Ben Watt, from the new wave lounge-jazz of Eden to the overblown synth-goop of The Language of Life. Bittersweet adult folk-pop? Their evergreen 1994 Amplified Heart. Late-night brooding ghost-techno? Their 1996 gem Walking Wounded. Thorn has always thrived on the margins, without ever once attempting to pass for cool – who else can claim she’s sung brilliant lead vocals for both Paul Weller and Massive Attack at their peaks? (The classics “Paris Match” and “Protection,” respectively.)
Since the 2000s, she and Watt have worked separately,
with consistently admirable results, including her memoir Bedsit Disco Queen.
Record goes for the synth-pop vibe of EBtG hits like “Missing,”
with producer Ewan Pearson. Thorn chronicles life and love among the fifty-somethings;
her characters are a little older but no wiser than the ones she kicked around
in tunes like “Oh! The Divorces.” Thorn never really trusted youth – she
and Watt spent their twenties trying hard to sound old – so it makes sense she
adapts so well to adult wariness. She sings about women who agonize as their
kids move out (“Go”), or stalk their exes on social media (“Face”),
or try to remember what it was like going to clubs (“Dancefloor”).
Yet the highlight is “Guitar,” reaching back to adolescence for a
tale about a girl with a doomed crush on the rock boy who teaches her those
first few chords: “While Leonard Cohen sang ‘Suzanne’/We kissed and
kissed but then you ran.” Long may she run.