I was first introduced to Everything But the Girl‘s Amplified Heart by my first randomly met, pursued, asked out, and dated girlfriend. She’d bought it for the Todd Terry dance remix of “Missing” that was getting lots of radio play at the time and she wasn’t really sure what to make of the mostly sparse, decidedly non-club songs that made up the rest of the album. I didn’t pay too much attention to it, though, as we broke up soon after and I busily, dramatically, sought comfort in Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and Peter Gabriel’s Us.
I started paying attention thanks to my senior year roommate. He took the album way too seriously, I was convinced at the time, and I tried to knock the wind out him by pointing out how adult-contemporary it all was and how Ben Watt’s double-tracked vocals sounded an awful lot like Andy Gibb. Plus, wasn’t “Missing” just a little too popular for the album to actually be any good? He stayed with it, though, playing the album on car trips and around the room and it soon became a constant companion.
As the soundtrack to a stormy senior year breakup—that is, a breakup that seemed to stretch out over an entire academic year—I found in it obscene amounts of relevance to my life. Lying on my dorm room floor in headphones I thought for sure that I knew what it was like to have a lover’s troubled mind be like “a goods train running through my life” or to look at someone and “only see bits of myself”. It didn’t seem to matter that these songs were built from experiences that I could only really pretend at; facing the loss of life to a rare and devastating illness and how to rebuild both your life and relationship in its aftermath (Watt’s book Patient is a stunningly vivid and personal account of his battle with Churg-Strauss syndrome).
Over the album’s eleven tracks, Watt and Tracey Thorn march like Sherman over the minefields of their time together. You think that you have a handle on the pain and confusion and searching that this album is built around, but there’s little chance that many of us are as lived in as these souls. Commitment, illness, movie dates, holidays with your family, breakups, and the feeling of lying awake waiting for the phone pop up throughout and all along you never feel like the emotions couldn’t have been your own. The simple, heartbeat lyrics are never exclusive and the best of the melodies are so instantly familiar that they feel as if they were pulled from out of your memories. An essential part of what makes the album work is that it never leaves you on the outside looking in. When Thorn’s voice breaks, asking if her lover ever gets her, it brings down any walls that would separate her from the listener.
The album is full of doubt and the aftermaths of trauma but it’s all so confidently conveyed and clearly-stated that things never get run down. There’s love too, and nothing declared it as plainly for me at the time as a lyric from “We Walk the Same Line”: “If you lose your faith, babe, you can have mine/ And if you’re lost I’m right behind”. It still seems like it contains at least as many truths about the possibilities for security and comfort in a relationship as “Don’t Worry Baby”.
With Amplified Heart, Watt and Thorn made good on the promise of their earlier albums, wrapping their confessional soul in bossa backings and producing songs that were too weighty for Lite stations but still maybe a little too close to Anita Baker for most hipsters. They applied to their own material the same consistently stellar approach that they had used to interpret other people’s songs in the past and with the success of “Missing”, the album was kept out of obscurity in America and the band was propelled towards the house beats and electronica that made up 1996’s similarly-excellent Walking Wounded. It makes sense that “Missing” was a hit; they didn’t waste a word (they even needed only one for the title) and they spun the emotion with total economy. Although the hook line was what most people remember, I’ve always found it more moving when Thorn finds herself, obsessed and alone, standing in front of her old lover’s window: “I look up at your house and I can almost hear you shout down to me where I always used to be”. You can hear the years add up in that one line and it drives her final realization that, “You’re all gone and I can’t move on”.
When I moved to Boston and joined a new band, the three of us exchanged CDs. I was introduced to Pavement, Elliott Smith, Guided by Voices, and Morphine; stuff that I probably should have been listening to in college. I gave them Amplified Heart, both because it’s the only album I’d cared enough about to want to share with someone else and because it was the only album I owned that I thought they wouldn’t have heard. It didn’t have the same effect on them that it had on me a few years earlier and I never pushed it. Maybe if I had they would have come around the same way I had, but it just didn’t seem like it was worth the risk.
I put the album away for a while after that and busied myself with listening to all kinds of music that I’d missed in the past. Which isn’t to say that Amplified Heart is somehow in the past; whenever I hear it, it’s still easy to marvel at the way the melodies glitter when they hit their stride, the way that you can’t listen to Tracey Thorn’s vocals and not feel involved, or the way that the complicated, conflicting emotions are conveyed with such simple grace. Really, though, I don’t need to listen it anymore to renew my love for it or remember how much it meant to me at a certain time. Still, it feels weird trying to put that into words because what’s personal or meaningful to one might be maudlin self-pity to another but I guess that’s always the way that it is. For fear of that I’ll just leave it alone now. In the end, it’s an album that can speak for itself.